Japan Today



Internet freedom and the erosion of democracy


Last week, at least 125 million people watched the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual competition of singers from 56 countries across Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. This year’s contest was hosted by Azerbaijan, a country whose human-rights record has come under heavy fire.

Azerbaijan is a classic example of how, even when people are free to connect to the global Internet, they can be subject to pervasive, unaccountable and unconstrained surveillance. It is also a case of how, while Western democratic governments have been quick to follow the lead of the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in calling for a free and open global Internet, they are much more conflicted when it comes to surveillance. The democratic world has failed to address the freedom-eroding potential of government surveillance through commercial networks.

China and Iran block Facebook and other social-media services to keep people from using the Internet for purposes of dissent and political organization. Azerbaijan has similar goals, but strives to achieve them through surveillance, instead. Azeris know that their Internet and mobile-phone activity is being logged, and that potentially deviant behavior is automatically flagged. In 2009, several people were interrogated by police because they used their mobile phones to vote for the Armenian Eurovision contestants instead of their own countrymen.

Blanket surveillance of Azerbaijan’s mobile-phone networks is carried out with help from the Stockholm-based Swedish-Finish telecommunications company TeliaSonera. Last month, a Swedish investigative television program, "Uppdrag Granskning," broadcast an exposé of TeliaSonera’s operations in Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Sources from within the company described how in Azerbaijan, TeliaSonera’s subsidiary, Azercell, installed devices known internally as “black boxes,” which allow real-time blanket monitoring of all mobile traffic without court orders or warrants. Azercell even hosts government security personnel on company premises. As one TeliaSonera whistle-blower told reporters, “The Arab Spring prompted the regimes to tighten their surveillance. ... There’s no limit to how much wiretapping is done, none at all.”

The Swedish government, despite its strong rhetoric in support of Internet freedom and the recent convening of activists from around the world to address the issue, has been easy on TeliaSonera. In response to a newspaper reporter’s question about TeliaSonera’s role in Belarus, where the regime conducts rampant surveillance on its opposition and where a brutal crackdown took place last year, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt replied, “In general, I think that it’s good that we participate in developing telecommunications in different countries. Having a working mobile phone system in Belarus is better for the opposition than for the regime.” In other words, Bildt suggests, Internet and communications technology is necessarily good for democracy.

That may have been a reasonable assumption a few years ago, but governments are increasingly planning ahead in an effort to thwart the challenges to their power presented by the Internet and mobile networks. In countries like Belarus and Azerbaijan, governments – particularly via their police and militaries – are embedding themselves ever more deeply into the infrastructure of the Internet, diminishing the relative advantage challengers once held.

Unfortunately, many Western democratic governments are doing the same, albeit with more rigorous legal restrictions limiting citizen arrests. The result, however, is that these governments are expanding their powers and weakening judicial oversight. Most notably, the U.S. Department of Defense’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been conducting warrantless wiretapping for nearly a decade. This activity has been possible thanks to the cooperation of Internet and phone companies like AT&T, as well as specialized equipment vendors like the California-based Narus (owned by Boeing) – which happens to sell similar equipment to governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. A cyber-security bill recently passed by the House of Representatives would further legitimize the NSA’s access to civilian communications despite a long-standing American value that says the U.S. military must not operate on U.S. soil against American citizens.

This state of affairs shows just how easily multinational telecommunications service and equipment companies seem to slip into close relationships with police and militaries around the world. Such coziness, however, invites abuse of power in all types of political systems.

People in developed societies now rely on digital networks for practically every aspect of their lives, including politics. It is time for all of us, as citizens of democracies, to use our votes, our investment dollars, and our choices as consumers and users of technology to constrain the power of governments and corporations across the world’s digital networks. If we fail to do so, there will be grave consequences: Democracy where it exists will be gradually, but severely, eroded. Its prospects elsewhere will be substantially diminished – as they have been in Azerbaijan.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Haven't seen it for a few years but watched the finals this time. The setting in Azerbaijan was fantastic but the singers and songs were pretty dire and the voting was extremely partisan.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

We will not be able to stop this intrusion into privacy unless the whole world changes, a mass worldwide revolution for instance.

It is easy for governements to do this and monitor us " We be concerned if you have nothing to hide?", "we are protecting your freedom" etc...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Who would have expected a camp song contest to generate such a heavy article?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"Western democratic governments have been quick to follow the lead of the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in calling for a free and open global Internet" Ermm, fact check, the USA has on several occasions become within a cats whisker to censoring the internet, again very recently in fact, it is often Europe that fights for that freedom, such as SWITCH anonimity and the right to phone call privacy... the songs were as funny and mas as ever this year, good! Giving music back to the people somewhat ^^

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Here in the United States, our Internet and telephone services are routinely montored by our government, so what freedom of the Internet?

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Internet freedom need to be caution if world relay need to utilise this unique tools to strengthen social fabric for better and safe world for our children.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

In the USA, we have experienced the wonderful consequences of a total ban on warrantless wiretapping and communications monitoring. It was 2500 dead on 9/11. So today we count on our government to use this power to protect us, not to subjugate us. So long as we still have elections, we can throw out those who abuse the power we have given them.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Its easy to point fingers at government, but the government could do nothing without droves of disgusting people doing the footwork, sitting their monitoring our communications, without an ounce of shame between them.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Not to sound defeatist or anything, but if not Telia-Sonera, someone else would do it -or failing that, they'd homebrew their own. Principles are nice, but they often wilt in the face of reality.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

sounds like 125 million nothing todo people to me. not a spectacular number like watching a world cup in the billions

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

One of The U.S. founding fathers said something to the extent of . . .

Those who trade freedom for security shall have neither.

So long as we still have elections, we can throw out those who abuse the power we have given them

If only the people actually did this.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The worst thing that happened to Eurovision was to let Eastern Europe participate. Any good song is wasted. Poor UK is complaining of political voting, but horrible offerings don't help either. Actually, I thought France's was quite good, which is why I knew it had no hope in hell of winning. I too haven't watched it for years. Nothing ever comes of the winners, except with ABBA and Céline Dion, both of who were destined for stardom regardless of Eurovision.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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