Reporters Without Borders warned today that security "abuses" by the world’s governments in the year since the 11 September attacks in the United States have increasingly put the Internet under the control of security services.
"Basic Internet freedoms have clearly been cut back," said the organisation’s secretary-general, Robert Ménard, and the Internet can be put on the list of the "collateral damage" caused by the "tragic events" in New York and Washington and the drive for tighter security.
Many governments had also used the pretext of the anti-terrorism drive to curb basic freedoms or crack down on their domestic opponents using the Internet.
Ménard spoke as Reporters Without Borders published a report, The Internet on Probation, detailing the concerted attacks on Internet freedoms around the world over the past year.
He said the situation was especially disturbing because, apart from countries (such as China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia) traditionally hostile to human rights and freedom of expression that had used the situation to step up repression, Western democracies were now posing a "new threat" to citizens’ freedoms with an arsenal of new security measures.
The report said many countries had introduced facilities for general retention of data about people’s e-mail traffic and Internet activity, turning Internet service providers (ISPs) and telecommunications companies into "a potential arm of the police."
"Access to this mass of information is being given with alarming ease to police and intelligence services," it said. "This unprecedented abuse means all citizens are theoretically under suspicion."
The report cites the major steps taken in the drive against Internet freedoms over the past year. These include UN Security Council Resolution 1373 on fighting terrorism, the USA Patriot Act passed by the US Congress and various orders of President George Bush, the amendment of the European Union’s rules on protection of electronic data, various other laws passed by parliaments around the world and the recommendations of the G8 nations and the European police body, Europol.
"The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the G8 nations have all challenged cyber-freedoms over the past year," said Ménard. "Yet these are countries with deep-rooted secular and democratic traditions whose citizens fought long and hard to win their right to free expression, the confidentiality of mail and the right of journalists not to reveal their sources."
"What would the citizens of Europe and elsewhere do," asked Ménard, "if they were told a law had been passed allowing what they sent through the post to be routinely read by the police at any time? They would be outraged at such restrictions on their freedom.
"Yet these are exactly the kind of measures that have been taken or are being taken concerning the Internet. We need to be much more vigilant."
Download this report in pdf