Internet Freedom Faces ‘Vigourous’ Opposition

By Matthew Little, Epoch Times Staff

TORONTO—In the future, people may look back on our time as the good ol’ days when the Internet was open and free—at least in some parts of the world.

That’s the concern of Ronald Deibert, a co-founder of the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) and one of the world’s foremost experts on the state of the Internet and the efforts of various players to either keep it open or close it off.

“We’re really at a threshold here,” he said after an event at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto on Friday. That night, Deibert was joined by his colleagues to celebrate the publications of ONI’s latest book, Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace.

While groups like ONI and some big players including Google and the U.S. State Department are trying to keep cyberspace open, there are more forces trying to close it off, said Deibert, leaving him pessimistic that China’s big-brother type Internet could become more common.

“There are so many countervailing forces that if you were to ask me as a betting person, I kind of see this closure coming.”

"Access Contested" scrutinizes the contest for Internet control in Asia. (Matthew Little/The Epoch Times)

Access Contested describes the efforts of those working to maintain a free Internet being challenged by “a more vigorous commitment by many governments” to push for something more fitting the interests of oppressive regimes antithetical to freedom of speech.

ONI’s latest book sits like a looming question mark after two previous books outlined the spectre of what could come if nothing is done.

The first book, Access Denied, detailed the efforts of some governments to block content—efforts that had developed by the time ONI published Access Controlled, which detailed the evolution from crude firewalls to sophisticated real-time blocking efforts and pervasive Internet monitoring.

Those efforts have continued unabated, often with the help of Western companies, and now the almost mystical dream that the Internet would be a tool for liberalization in the darkest corners of the world has proven false.

Access Controlled focuses on the daily battle for rights and freedoms in Asia, and while the book doesn’t look closely at Russia, it is Russia and China which form the backbone of an alliance that wants a new vision of the Internet dialectically different from its California west coast roots.

“China maintains one of the most pervasive and sophisticated regimes of Internet filtering and information control in the world,” notes an introduction in the book to the state of the Internet in China.

If the Chinese communist regime were the international purveyor of Internet philosophy, the World Wide Web would be understood as a space for voicing unabashed support for the ruling regime where dissenting voices are raised at their peril.

Currently the regime is trying to force a registration system that would take away online anonymity and stifle a growing blogosphere where average Chinese feel emboldened to type their thoughts on issues from corruption to international affairs.

But while the stories in Access Contested seem to foreshadow darker days online, the story of the book itself offers hope given the ingenuity and bravery needed to create it. Deibert tells the audience at the book launch about secret cash drops and clandestine research that tyrannical regimes deem treasonous.

ONI recruited scholars and researchers from within countries where probing the nature and mechanics of Internet control could bring charges of espionage. The result is a book full of examples and insights that should give freedom fighters cause for concern and the insight to face key battlegrounds with necessary urgency.

However, although those looking to get the Internet under control are powerful and many, those seeking to create cracks in those controls are ingenious and dedicated.

“Without them we really wouldn’t understand much about the technical data we collect,” Deibert notes.

ONI is a joint project between players at the University of Toronto, Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford. The project examines the intersection between paranoid despots and exploding technological evolution.

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