As activism has become increasingly reliant on social networking, repressive regimes have responded by cutting off internet access. When Hosni Mubarak, a former Egyptian President, leader and military commander, for instance, discovered that protesters were using Facebook to help foment dissent, he ordered the state-controlled ISPs to shut down Egypt’s internet for days.
In China, the Communist Party uses its “Great Firewall” to prevent citizens from reading pro-democracy sites. In the United States, authorities have shut down mobile service to prevent activists from communicating, as it happened a couple of years ago during a protest at San Francisco subway stations. And such reactions are not only prompted by dissent. Some of the big phone and cable companies have begun to block digital activities they disapprove of, like sharing huge files on BitTorrent.
A subject of controversy, Snowden’s release of classified material was called the most significant leak in US history by Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. A series of exposés beginning June 5, 2013 revealed Internet surveillance programs such as PRISM, XKeyscore and Tempora, as well as the interception of US and European telephone metadata. The reports were based on documents Snowden leaked to The Guardian and The Washington Post while employed by NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. After Snowden revelations, the reaction in Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and the United States to the NSA leaks has included protest, vigorous debate and in America the admission from the secretary of state, John Kerry, that the NSA has gone too far and the policy of bulk data collection must be looked at again. Brazil and Germany, angered by the NSA activities, have drafted a resolution for the UN General Assembly, which declares deep concern about “human rights violations and abuses that may result from the conduct of any surveillance of communications”.
Transparency is become a critical element to the debate. The recent revelation of mass internet surveillance programmes by USA underscores the need for greater transparency and accountability for such programs. Governments have an obligation to make public the criteria under which they gather, use and make public information about private persons, both citizens and others.
The primary function of government is to ensure the security of its citizens and to protect them, their property and way of life against threats. An independent nation will have security arrangements that are proportionate, fit for purpose and reflect a full strategic assessment of country’s needs and the threats they may face.
Freedom of Press
The freedom of the press and information can influence government actions. The freedom of press is the foundation for transparency, and increasing access to government tools via the internet also influences transparency. There are countries where their surveillance programmes are just as bad or worse. There are so many countries where journalists are beaten, bloggers like Malala Yousafzai are imprisoned and activists are killed.
The Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders based upon the organization’s assessment of the countries’ press freedom records in the previous year. It reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organizations, and netizens enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.
India has dropped nine places to 140 in the list of 179 countries in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index, which its authors, Reporters Without Borders, said was the lowest for the “world’s biggest democracy” since 2002. “In Asia, India (140th, — 9) is at its lowest since 2002 because of increasing impunity for violence against journalists and because Internet censorship continues to grow,” Reporters Without Borders said. China (173, +1), it said, had shown no sign of improving. “Its prisons still hold many journalists and netizens, while increasingly unpopular Internet censorship continues to be a major obstacle to access to information.”
A Freedom House study of 47 countries on the subject of Internet freedom ranks India in the “partly free” category, a rank below fully free countries such as USA, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Australia. In its study of key internet controls, the report cites India for blocking Web 2.0, localized or nationwide ICT shutdown, passing new laws increasing censorship, and arrests of bloggers for political and social commentary.
Governments may therefore need to be more transparent and forthcoming about their access to information. Of course there are those that may argue that this knowledge may prevent evil doers from using these platforms, but the reality will remain that governments are often ahead of regulation when it comes to prying. Often, they will create structures of accountability when they get caught.
In South Africa, the government regulated this practice by creating data base for direct marketing. People who do not want to be tracked on email and mobile simply opted out. Interestingly more people opt to be placed in mailing lists than opt out. Thus with clarity that they are tracked for their own good, it is likely that consumers may be quite happy to share their conversations or emails, those outside this group would also make a good observatory sample and possibly narrow down the numbers to be watched “carefully”.
Governments’ commitment relies on robust intelligence capabilities to identify threats to National interests, and to advance our foreign policy, which includes our commitment to Human Rights. At the same time, such intelligence efforts must be fully informed by our international commitments, our democratic principles, our respect for Human Rights, and the privacy concerns of people around the world.