Internet freedom came into prominent global focus in 2012. Physical conflicts, as
might be expected, provided much of the momentum for the issue’s appearance
in the spotlight: the conflict in the Gaza strip saw digital war waged over Twitter
between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas group. Google became embroiled in
legal activity after a YouTube video slandering Muslim prophet Muhammad caused
rage and violence across the Middle East. China imprisoned a man for vocalizing
opposition to the government on social media. Russian lawyers used online videos
of punk band Pussy Riot as evidence in court to imprison the band’s three members
for “hooliganism.” Syria’s government shut down the entire country’s internet to
silence and disable anti-Assad rebels.
And as these digital counterparts to real-world conflicts raged, there was a
conspicuous lack of policy leadership on the broader issues of digital security.
China deployed technology to disrupt activity of virtual private networks while
party leaders pushed for relaxed control a few weeks later; British lawmakers
reacted to harsh criticism for introducing a bill that would monitor internet activity.
The United States and its allies tangled with a Russian-led bloc at a United Nations
meeting in Dubai about whether to revise internet regulations worldwide in favor of
A fraught question, indeed – one amply illustrated by social media battle between
the IDF and Hamas. The peril and terror of the violent flare-up was, some argue,
aggravated as each group tweeted its victories and threats, while blasting the
propaganda from their respective blogs across the Web. And consider, as a related
issue, the abundant opportunities enjoyed by hacker groups, such as the now-
notorious activist collective Anonymous, to splash across the media when they make
attempts to shut down popular and government websites.
2013 will bring, it seems hard to deny, more and more trenchant questions about
the causes, nature and legal-political consequences of cyber warfare: Where does it
start? Should those involved be punished? Should lines be drawn on social networks
to censor items that might cause violence? Would censorship of any kind on the
open internet violate the right to free speech certain states guarantee their citizens?
And this this not merely a policy struggle. Such questions, it should be remembered,
penetrate the private sector as deeply as the public. Witness the small furors that
accompanied the propagation of “The Innocence of Muslims” via Google-owned
YouTube, or Twitter’s refusal to close down the IDF and Hamas accounts. Even
firms lacking a global profile are involved: consider the case of U.S.-based
CloudFlare, which provides Web performance support and security. Both the IDF
and Hamas groups employed its services – the latter relationship being a subject of
some legal interest to the Unites States’ government. The Patriot Act forbids U.S.
firms from providing “material support” to groups labeled as terrorist organizations,
does Web-based support qualify?
The disparate opinions on the ethical and political implications of monitoring the
internet are set to worsen in the coming years as a global consensus on internet
freedom remains elusive.