- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Obama administration is warning that governments around the world are extending their repression to the Internet, seeking to cut off their citizens’ access to websites and other means of communication to stave off the types of revolutions that have wracked the Middle East.

The State Department’s annual human rights report, issued Friday, paints a worrying picture of countries “spending more time, money and attention in efforts to curtail access to these new communications outlets.” More than 40 governments are now blocking their citizens’ access to the Internet, and the firewalls, regulatory restrictions and technologies are all “designed to repress speech and infringe on the personal privacy of those who use these rapidly evolving technologies.”

Presenting the mammoth, 7,000-page report, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said curtailing Internet freedom meant violating the fundamental rights of expression, assembly and association.

“Democracy and human rights activists and independent bloggers found their emails hacked or their computers infected with spyware that reported back on their every keystroke,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Digital activists have been tortured so they would reveal their passwords and implicate their colleagues.”

Mrs. Clinton singled out Myanmar and Cuba for government policies that seek to preempt any online dissent by keeping almost their entire populations off the Internet.

But they are far from alone.

The report criticizes Saudi Arabia, a vital U.S. ally but one opposing the Obama administration’s push for democratic reforms in the Arab world, for spying on email and chat rooms and blocking sites about religions such as Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. The conservative Sunni kingdom also prevented people from reaching websites about forms of Islam deemed incompatible with Shariah law and national regulations, according to the report.

During its election, the Sudanese government blocked access to a website monitoring votes.

Vietnamese authorities orchestrated attacks against important sites and spied on dissident bloggers, arresting 25 last year and forcibly entering the homes of others to confiscate computers and cellphones.

And the Chinese government, among the world’s most sensitive to any sign of dissent, tightly controlled content on the Internet and detained people for expressing critical views of the government or its policies.

Mrs. Clinton noted that the report is being released during a wave of unrest across the Arab world. She said the U.S. has been “inspired by the courage and determination of the activists in the Middle East and North Africa and in other repressive societies, who have demanded peaceful democratic change and respect for their universal human rights.”

In Egypt and Tunisia, activists aided by Twitter and similar websites were able to mobilize massive demonstrations that brought down their longtime leaders. The Internet and mobile-phone technologies have helped give voice to similar protest movements in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere. And violence continues in Libya, where strongman Moammar Gadhafi is refusing to heed the call of many nations to leave power.

The unrest has led many governments to reassess how open they want to be, fearful of seeing their authority challenged by individuals determined to gain a greater say in governance.



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