Although events in the Middle East confirm that the power of an angry crowd in a public square remains potent, the Internet is fast becoming the medium of choice for spreading political ideas. The number of global Internet users has doubled during the past five years, and now exceeds 2 billion people. In response, governments worldwide are seeking new means to influence and often control this discourse.
Freedom House's newly released report, "Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media" (.pdf), shows how governments have employed deviously creative tactics to control Web sites, blogs and email messages that they consider threatening. Some of these new restrictions are a reaction against the growing use of sophisticated social networking software applications such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. These sites are now giving ordinary users, including social and political activists, networking tools previously available only to Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
According to the report, repressive governments have reacted to the growing spread of Internet access and user-generated content by blocking and filtering Web sites associated with political opponents; using legal intimidation to force ISPs to remove threatening content; and arresting users for posting comments or information that the government considers threatening. If necessary, the authorities have employed cyberattacks and misinformation to shape the information landscape in ways unfavorable to human freedoms. Whereas in the past the authorities would provide ISPs with regularly updated blacklists of banned sites, now the use of more-sophisticated filtering technology that searches for a rapidly updated list of banned keywords is becoming more common.