The Obama administration warned Friday that governments around the world are extending their repression to the Internet, seeking to cut off their citizens' access to websites and other means of communication to stave off the types of revolutions that have wracked the Middle East.
The State Department's annual human rights report paints a worrying picture of countries "spending more time, money and attention in efforts to curtail access to these new communications outlets." More than 40 governments are now blocking their citizens' access to the Internet, and the firewalls, regulatory restrictions and technologies are all "designed to repress speech and infringe on the personal privacy of those who use these rapidly evolving technologies."
Presenting the mammoth, 7,000-page report, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said curtailing Internet freedom meant violating the fundamental rights of expression, assembly and association.
"Democracy and human rights activists and independent bloggers found their emails hacked or their computers infected with spyware that reported back on their every keystroke," Clinton said. "Digital activists have been tortured so they would reveal their passwords and implicate their colleagues."
Clinton singled out Myanmar and Cuba for government policies that seek to preempt any online dissent by keeping almost their entire populations off the Internet.
But they are far from alone.
The report criticizes Saudi Arabia, a vital U.S. ally but one opposing the Obama administration's push for democratic reforms in the Arab world, for spying on e-mail and chat rooms, and blocking sites about religions such as Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. The conservative Sunni kingdom also prevented people from reaching webpages about forms of Islam deemed incompatible with Sharia law and national regulations, according to the report.
During its election, the Sudanese government blocked access to a website monitoring votes.
Vietnamese authorities orchestrated attacks against important sites and spied on dissident bloggers, arresting 25 last year and forcibly entering the homes of others to confiscate computers and cell phones.
And the Chinese government, among the world's most sensitive to any sign of dissent, tightly controlled content on the Internet and detained people for expressing critical views of the government or its policies.
Clinton noted that the report is being released during a wave of unrest across the Arab world. She said the U.S. has been "inspired by the courage and determination of the activists in the Middle East and North Africa and in other repressive societies, who have demanded peaceful democratic change and respect for their universal human rights."
In Egypt and Tunisia, activists aided by Twitter and similar websites were able to mobilize massive demonstrations that brought down their long-time leaders. The Internet and mobile phone technologies have helped give voice to similar protest movements in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere. And violence continues in Libya, where strongman Moammar Gadhafi is refusing to heed the call of many nations to leave power.
The unrest has led many governments to reassess how open they want to be, fearful of seeing their authority challenged by individuals determined to gain a greater say in governance.
Michael Posner, U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, said the Obama administration is spending a lot of time trying to figure out what governments around the world are doing to control the Internet. He said two main methods are being employed.
"Some governments _ the Chinese would be an example, the Iranians _ put up a firewall," Posner told reporters. But, "most governments aren't going to shut down the Internet. They are simply going to go after the people who use it that are dissenters. So they hack into their computers, they take their cell phones when they are arrested and they grab the list of names that are in their address book. They use every technical capacity they have to invade privacy, to monitor what these dissenters are doing."
To aid people seeking to speak out, the U.S. government is helping to finance circumvention technologies to avoid firewalls, he said. To deal with governments hacking computers or intimidating dissenters, the U.S. government has trained 5,000 people from around the world on how to leave less of a trace on the Internet.
"It's one of the most innovative things we're doing," Posner said. "In a lot of cases, people who are using the Internet in these societies aren't sufficiently mindful either of what their possibilities are technically to protect themselves, or what the risks are."
Clinton highlighted a couple of other worrying trends in human rights around the world.
She said there has been a "widespread crackdown" on civil society activists, whose work is vital so that governments understand the needs of their people. Venezuela's government has intimidated such groups through the courts and new restrictions on independent media. And in Russia, there have been violent crackdowns on campaigners and numerous attacks and murders of journalists and activists, she said.
In other places, the most pressing problem was the repression of vulnerable racial, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as gays and lesbians, Clinton said. She cited Pakistan as a problem country because blasphemy remains a crime punishable by death, and two government officials who sought to change the law were assassinated. Other extremist attacks have killed dozens of people just for practicing their religion in Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria, while Iranian authorities executed more than 300 people last year.
Among the countries which improved their respect for human rights, Clinton cited Colombia, Guinea and Indonesia.
She said the U.S. "will stand with those who exercise their fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly in a peaceful way, whether in person, in print or in pixels on the Internet."