Human Rights Watch
World Report 2007
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Audio Commentary

Press Conference

Photography - Year in Review

News Release




Technology as a Restraint: Internet Censorship and Surveillance

Access to information is integral to free expression: speech is an empty right if it means talking into a box rather than communicating and sharing information and ideas with others.26 The internet, in this sense, is a powerful engine for free expression, creating global audiences and global sources of information, and it is understandable that states have sought to monitor and restrict it for both good reasons and bad. Privacy plays a less obvious, but equally important role in free expression in a democracy. The inability to choose one’s audience or to seek ideas and information without monitoring, inhibits thought, speech, and association. And even for those not easily inhibited, surveillance is invasive. For that reason alone, privacy merits protection to ensure human dignity and integrity.27

The “war on terror” did not cause, but did exacerbate, the trend towards restriction of the internet and the proliferation of surveillance through modern technology. Governments that once invoked child pornographers as a good reason to censor internet publications shifted emphasis to terrorism as a rationale. Corporations became willing assistants in the fencing and filtering of access, even while justifying their cooperation with repressive governments in terms of expanding public access to information (and of course, their own access to markets). Surveillance and data collection grew exponentially, not only because developments in modern technology made such practices more economically feasible, but also because security fears made them more politically palatable.

Some governments have been eager to grasp the internet as a tool for economic and educational development but are wary that losing control over information will also cause them to lose control over their population. A number of Middle Eastern governments have embraced the cause of improving public access to the internet, but at the same time use advanced filtering and surveillance technology to monitor online expression. Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and Syria prosecute and imprison online writers for politically objectionable material, and these as well as many other countries in the Middle East block websites for political, human rights, or Islamist content in addition to pornography and gambling, and monitor internet cafes.

In 2005 Tunisia hosted the World Summit on the Information Society to showcase its commitment to internet access. What also fell into the global spotlight was the government’s robust censorship, harassment, and prosecution of online critics for offenses such as false news, defamation, or terrorism, expansively defined and interpreted. Tunisia strictly controls internet service providers, regulates internet cafes, and uses filtering technology to block political, news, and human rights sites. It has cited counterterrorism and the need to curb incitement to hatred and violence as among its justifications for censoring information online. Yet tests that Human Rights Watch ran in September 2005 on 41 radical Islamist sites found only four blocked, and numerous sites relating to weapons manufacture and purchase were also readily available. In contrast, the website of Reporters Without Borders was blocked as were numerous opposition political and news sites, discrediting the government’s justifications for censorship.28

The Great Firewall of China is a case of corporate collaboration in censorship. Press liberty has deteriorated since 2003 when President Hu Jintao took office, and the government has taken harsh steps to control and suppress peaceful political and religious dissent, including jailing journalists and bloggers. China operates the most sophisticated internet filtering and surveillance apparatus in the world, employing tens of thousands, but also relying on the active cooperation of major internet companies in proactive censorship. Yahoo! has provided user information to government authorities that enabled China to convict four government critics, and it has censored the results generated by its search engine to eliminate politically controversial terms and sites. Microsoft and Google also proactively censor their Chinese search engines, in anticipation of what the government would require them to block.

Censorship has not always been transparent, with companies sometimes providing minimal notice that results have been filtered, but no indication of what is missing or why. Skype also censored text-chats, but without notifying users that it was doing so.29 Pressure is on internet companies to create a voluntary code of conduct to guide their dealings with governments that do not respect freedom of expression or information. It is unlikely, however, that this alone will avert a “race to the bottom” in human rights standards without government regulation to put the brakes on proactive censorship and the lack of transparency.

While China is probably the most advanced in filtering and monitoring its slice of the internet, it is hardly alone. China has exported its technology to censor and monitor electronic communications to Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe. Other governments are trying to reproduce China’s success in fencing in cyberspace and purging it of unwanted ideas, among them Iran, Yemen, Vietnam, and Tunisia. Burma monitors emails and uses software in internet cafes that records what is displayed on the screen every five minutes, while Uzbekistan fines cafe surfers for accessing banned political sites.30

As important as it is to free speech, the internet is only one arena for burgeoning state surveillance. The US requires telephone companies to have a surveillance capability, and has pressed for internet voice telephony to have surveillance capability embedded into the service as well.31 In most jurisdictions, governments have easy access to both telephone traffic data and internet traffic data as collected by internet service providers, in distinction to the substantive content of calls, which usually requires judicial warrant. Internet traffic data, however, gives far more information than telephone traffic data—for example, websites and pages visited, chat partners, searches—enabling the monitor to create a thorough profile of individuals. EU nations have sometimes considered whether to require retention of electronic communications records for a period of time so that they may be searched, a measure the US supports.32 Governments are creating enormous databases of personal information in many other ways (from data collected during travel, corporate records, national identity documents) that can be shared. These days, the person standing on the soapbox in Hyde Park is likely to be preserved by the government on film; London has one of the highest densities of public surveillance cameras in the world. Many are unaware of this surveillance explosion, which is likely to continue and deepen as technological ability to track people improves. But when surveillance pierces the consciousness, as the intensive monitoring of Muslim charities has in the US, it can have a profoundly intimidating effect.33

26 Indeed, the guarantee of free speech in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides so explicitly. Article 19(2) states, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

27 The protection of privacy in international law is from “arbitrary” or “unlawful” interference. See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 17, and General Comment 16 of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, interpreting these qualifiers.

28 Human Rights Watch, False Freedom: Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa, vol. 17, no. 10(E), November 2005,

29 See Human Rights Watch, Race to the Bottom: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship, vol. 18, no. 8(C), August 2006,

30 Reporters Without Borders, The Internet Black Holes, “Burma,” undated,, and “Uzbekistan,” undated,

31 Electronic Privacy Information Center, “Internet Telephony,” undated,

32 “US Data Access Proposal Shows Need for More Protection, EU Official Says,” Communications Daily, May 15, 2000.

33 Neil Macfarquhar, “Fears of inquiry dampen giving by U.S. Muslims,” New York Times, October 30, 2006.