Internet freedom in the wake of the Arab Spring

Jillian C. York writes: For several years, discussions about global Internet freedom have focused primarily on what are widely considered the world’s two most restrictive countries: China and Iran. But while China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is indeed the most sophisticated system of censorship and Iran’s persecution of bloggers unprecedented, the Arab world — the 22 Arabic-speaking states and territories stretching from Morocco to Saudi Arabia — is the most Internet-restrictive region on earth.

In 2010, four Arab countries (Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) were named to Reporters Without Borders’ Enemies of the Internet [PDF] list, while two more (the UAE and Bahrain) were designated as ‘under surveillance.’ Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2011 [PDF] report (released early in the year) saw two of the region’s countries (Tunisia and Egypt) slide backwards, and The OpenNet Initiative claimed in their most recent regional report that “Internet censorship in the Middle East and North Africa is on the rise, and the scope and depth of filtering are increasing.” Meanwhile, a glance at the Threatened Voices project’s map shows China and Iran immediately followed by Egypt and Tunisia when it comes to repression of bloggers.

Therefore, when Egyptians and Tunisians kicked off 2011 with a bang, ousting entrenched leaders Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, observers were hopeful that the two countries–both of whose pro-democracy movements had strong contingencies of free expression advocates–would move in the right direction toward Internet freedom.

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