CPJ Special Report

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The 10 Tools of Online Oppressors

The world’s worst online oppressors are using an array of tactics, some reflecting astonishing levels of sophistication, others reminiscent of old-school techniques. From China’s high-level malware attacks to Syria’s brute-force imprisonments, this may be only the dawn of online oppression. A CPJ special report by Danny O’Brien.

A security line outside Google's Beijing office. (AP/Andy Wong)

A security line outside Google’s Beijing office. (AP/Andy Wong)

Published May 2, 2011


SAN FRANCISCO
In reporting news from the world’s most troubled nations, journalists have made a seismic shift this year in their reliance on the Internet and other digital tools. Blogging, video sharing, text messaging, and live-streaming from cellphones brought images of popular unrest from the central square of Cairo and the main boulevard of Tunis to the rest of the world.Yet the technology used to report the news has been matched in many ways by the tools used to suppress information. Many of the oppressors’ tactics show an increasing sophistication, from the state-supported email in China designed to take over journalists’ personal computers, to the carefully timed cyber-attacks on news websites in Belarus. Still other tools in the oppressor’s kit are as old as the press itself, including imprisonment of online writers in Syria, and the use of violence against bloggers in Russia.

To mark World Press Freedom Day, May 3, the Committee to Protect Journalists is examining the 10 prevailing tactics of online oppression worldwide and the countries that have taken the lead in their use. What is most surprising about these Online Oppressors is not who they are—they are all nations with long records of repression—but how swiftly they adapted old strategies to the online world.

In two nations we cite, Egypt and Tunisia, the regimes have changed, but their successors have not categorically broken with past repressive practices. The tactics of other nations—such as Iran, which employs sophisticated tools to destroy anti-censorship technology, and Ethiopia, which exerts monopolistic control over the Internet—are being watched, and emulated, by repressive regimes worldwide.

INFRASTRUCTURE CONTROL

Key country: Ethiopia

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi tightly controls online news media. (AP)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi tightly controls online news media. (AP)

Telecommunications systems in many countries are closely tied to the government, providing a powerful way to control new media. In Ethiopia, a state-owned telecommunications company has monopoly control over Internet access and fixed and mobile phone lines. Despite a management and rebranding deal with France Telecom in 2010, the government still owns and directs Ethio Telecom, allowing it to censor when and where it sees fit. OpenNet Initiative, a global academic project that monitors filtering and surveillance, says Ethiopia conducts “substantial” filtering of political news. This matches Ethiopia’s continuing crackdown on offline journalists, four of whom are imprisoned for their work, according to CPJ records. Ethiopian government control does not simply extend to phone lines and Internet access. The country has also invested in extensive satellite-jamming technology to prevent citizens from receiving news from foreign sources such as the Amharic-language services of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Tactics in practice:

The other nine tactics were :

web blocking in Iran, precision censorship in Belarus, denial of access in Cuba,attacks on exile-run sites in Burma,malware attacks in China,state cyber-crime in Tunisia ,internet kill switches in Egypt of Mubarak, detention of bloggers in Syria and violence against online journalists in Russia.