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UPDATE Freedom House Warns UK Internet Users at Risk of Growing Censorship

Posted: 18th Apr, 2011 By: MarkJ
global internet censorship report 2011Freedom House, which claims to be an independent watchdog organization that monitors and supports the expansion of free speech around the world, has released its latest 2011 Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media Freedom (PDF) and heavily criticised the growing threat from Internet Censorship in the United Kingdom (UK).

However, of the 37 countries examined, the UK actually doesn't fair too poorly and is still considered to be a 'green' ("free") country that "has high levels of internet penetration, and online free expression is generally respected." Estonia, USA, Germany, Australia, Italy, South Africa and Brazil were also considered to be "free".

2011 global internet freedom map

Sadly it's not all good news. The report points out that the UK's situation has actually gotten worse since 2009 when it's Freedom on the Net score stood at 23 (lower is better), which has now risen to 25 in 2011. Part of this is down to last year's passing of the highly controversial Digital Economy Act (DEA), although the Internet Watch Foundation ( IWF ) is also criticised.

UK Freedom on the Internet Report Summary - DEA

The biggest recent controversy was the adoption of the Digital Economy Act in April 2010. The law allows for the blocking of websites and the cutting off of user accounts based on claims of intellectual-property rights violations. Free expression advocates also complain that procedures for blocking and removing content related to pornography and terrorism are not transparent, clear, or supported by an adequate appeals process.

UK Freedom on the Internet Report Summary - IWF ISP Filter

[The IWF] reportedly orders blocking of some 10,000 web pages from around the world every year, and its list contains 500 to 800 live URLs at any given time. Most of the content blocked or taken down includes pornography, particularly involving children, and terrorism.

The CleanFeed filtering system, developed by British Telecom and the IWF, blocks access to any images or websites listed in the IWF database. It is estimated that 98.9 percent of all UK traffic is filtered using CleanFeed or other, less-sophisticated systems.

The IWF’s blocking and removal actions are not transparent, the blocking criteria lack clarity, and the internal appeals process is inadequate. There is no judicial or governmental oversight. The organization has issued several controversial blocking decisions in recent times.

UK Freedom on the Internet Report Summary - RIPA

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) law covers the interception of communications; the acquisition of communications data. It requires that [ISPs and telecoms operators] maintain interception capabilities, including systems to record internet traffic on a large scale.

In the past few years, there have been numerous cases in which RIPA powers have been used to investigate minor violations, such as sending children to school in the wrong school district or illegal trash dumping. The law has also been used against journalists to obtain their phone records and identify their sources. This has prompted orders to scale back its use.

Overall the governments of 15 countries were found to engage in substantial blocking of politically relevant content; Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey and Vietnam.

Many make it national policy to restrict users’ access to often thousands of websites, including those of independent and opposition news outlets, international and local human rights groups, individual blogs, online videos and social-networking groups. Of course all of this is easily circumvented by using tools such as TOR.

Meanwhile users in the United Kingdom continue to enjoy wide access to free or low-cost blogging services, allowing them to express their views on the internet. So far the government hasn't directly clamped down on free speech but the price of freedom is always eternal vigilance.

UPDATE 28th April 2011

The following is an update from the IWF.

IWF Statement to ISPreview.co.uk

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) facilitates the voluntary industry-led initiative to block access to webpages depicting child sexual abuse images only (not legal pornography or terrorism) by providing a dynamic list of such webpages. This is a voluntary initiative which companies can subscribe to and information about the initiative, such as details of the IWF URL List Policy and Procedures, the criteria used for deciding on whether a webpage depicting child sexual abuse images should be listed and the Content Assessment Appeal Process can be found on the IWF’s website: www.iwf.org.uk
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