As people in places like Venezuela and Ukraine take to social media to get word out about government oppression, countries are turning to new technology to crack down on Internet activity and email history.
As Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in the introduction of the recently released 2014 human rights report:
[T]oo many governments continue to tighten their grasp on free expression, association, and assembly, using increasingly repressive laws, politically motivated prosecutions and even new technologies to deny citizens their universal human rights, in the public square, and in virtual space.
It’s no surprise that some countries - like Cuba and Saudi Arabia - track internet usage. Cuba monitors virtually all internet activity and Saudi Arabia has cracked down on campaigns it deems harmful, like attempts to mobilize people in favor of allowing women to drive. But other countries have really stepped up monitoring efforts in recent months. Here are five of the countries that, according to the report, are taking advantage of technology advances to limit freedom:
China is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, and government authorities have become adept at using technology to monitor citizens. They listen in on phone conversations, check fax transmissions, read emails and texts, and are increasingly restrictive in limiting which websites people check. The Ministry of Public Security reportedly relies on tens of millions of surveillance cameras around the country to track activity. The ministry says they are helping curb violent crime but human rights organizations say authorities use the cameras to intimidate political dissidents.
Authorities reportedly started employing new methods to control and censor internet use in September, and have been particularly virulent about targeting bloggers with large followings. They have also started requiring internet companies to implement censorship and surveillance. The companies were instructed to post only domestic media reports and to install software that copies emails.
Environmental activist Liu Futang's blog, which exposes environmental issues caused by government-backed projects, is not accessible. It was shut down in late 2012 after a court found him guilty of profiting from self-published books. Other bloggers and social media users have been physically detained.
It’s been about six months since Hassan Rouhani stepped in as president, but there has been “no meaningful improvement in the human rights situation there” since then, according to the report.
In fact, the government has restricted access to the internet, which only about a quarter of the population used during 2013. Restrictions were especially tight in the leadup to the presidential election, limiting citizens’ access to news and political debate. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance approves all internet service providers, and website owners and bloggers have to register with the ministry. Security forces also reportedly monitored telephone conversations.
In April, blogger Mojtaba Daneshtalab began serving a six-month prison term for "insulting the supreme leader." He wrote an article in 2011 that was critical of calls for a parliamentary system of government by Supreme Leader Khamanei. Daneshtalab was released in Octobe after serving his full sentence.
The Russian government has stepped up efforts to monitor and control the internet, and targets bloggers for “extremism” and libel. President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law that lets authorities demand that service providers block certain sites. Authorities also sometimes attempt to regulate what content appears online and require providers to install devices that allow police to track emails and identify specific internet users.
In January, popular blogger Rustem Adagamov was told to delete a post about a Tibetan activist attempting self-immolation. Officials called the post propaganda for suicide. Livejournal, the blogging platform Adagamov used, blocked the post’s accessibility from within the country but allowed it to be accessed from abroad.
Another tech-savvy nation, Singapore reportedly has extensive networks for gathering information and surveilling its people, with “highly sophisticated capabilities” for monitoring telephone and other private conversations. There are no court orders required for such monitoring and most residents believe that authorities engage in monitoring practices, including internet monitoring, regularly.
The government reportedly uses hundreds of specialists to monitor internet use and tap email and social media accounts. In May, the country experienced an almost-total blackout of internet service, which the government claimed was a technical error. Internet security experts insist it was intentional action by the government to restrict access, as blackouts coincided with security force attacks.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.