Sep 12, 2012 · 3 minutes

I know we’re all gutted because the new iPhone looks a bit shit in two-tone pants, but it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge that we in the US at least get to air our complaints about it on a relatively unfettered Internet. At a panel in Washington DC last night to mark the publication of “Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle For Democracy”, I learned that the majority of the world’s Internet users don’t have that privilege.

As much excitement as there has been over Facebook and Twitter’s roles in helping to mobilize protests in the likes of Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran, authoritarian forces have proven equally adept at deploying social media for their own purposes, and the idea of an “open Internet” is increasingly being eroded, a panel of Internet freedom experts told an audience of about 100 people at the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Governments are starting to test the unfettered flow of information, the unrestricted access to infrastructure," said Rafal Rohozinski, CEO of The SecDev Group and an expert on cyber-espionage.

About 1.2 billion Internet users (out of a global total of about 2 billion) live in some kind of restricted Internet environment, said Rohozinksi. Internet controls in countries such as Iran and China include subtle and overt measures, such as subjecting the Internet to media law, hacking opposition websites, paying “50-cent armies” to spread government propaganda, spreading malware, and crowdsourcing identification of wanted people. "Building borders in cyberspace and putting in place controls has become the norm rather than the exception,” said Rohozinski.

He also pointed out that three out of five Internet users live in fragile or failed states, but that even though governments appear to be taking increasing control of the Internet in their own countries, we are only at the beginning of a long trajectory of “open empowerment”, and the engagement between states, individuals, and the Internet is complex. “It's the same kind of contestation over communication and the right to do it that we saw during the Cold War,” he said.

Putting a more positive spin on things, Xiao Qiang, editor of the China Digital Times and an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, said that despite the China Communist Party’s stringent censorship efforts and its imposing Great Firewall, it will inevitably be overcome – a sentiment, incidentally, shared by Google chairman Eric Schmidt.

“Chinese government cannot control Internet indefinitely,” Qiang said. “They are in a losing battle.” He also said that censorship in China is “far from watertight” and is being compromised all the time.

Internet freedom activist Rebecca Mackinnon, however, was quick to temper those claims. China’s government recognizes that it needs the Internet in order to be economically successful, but it censors it to prevent challenges to its power, said Mackinnon, a former Beijing bureau chief for CNN and author of the recently published “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom”.

“It's not about total control; it's about keeping the Communist Party in power,” Mackinnon said.

China’s government is being forced to respond to some paradigm-shifting use of Internet technologies – microblogging in particular – but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the regime will be compromised, Mackinnon said. “The question is, will it lead to a multiparty system with rule of law and respect for rule of law and human rights? That’s not clear.”

Daniel Calingaert, vice president of independent watchdog Freedom House, also had a sobering message. The US and Europe are not doing enough to stem the decline in Internet freedom around the world, he said. While the Western democracies have made progress in moving to protect Internet freedom – such as providing ongoing support for cyber-dissidents, funding programs to provide technologies that circumvent controls, and increasing efforts to solidify international norms for cyberspace – it is limited in scope and is not up to the challenge of reigning in authoritarian regimes. As examples, he pointed to Oman’s jailing of four dissidents for criticizing the government online, Bahrain’s announcement that it will crack down on defamation in social media, and Russia’s threats to tighten its grip on Internet controls.

US and European governments tend to get involved in individual cases but don’t take a large enough role in countering restrictive Internet regulations. “That's an area where [the US and European] governments can challenge those governments together and say ‘Think twice about those laws,’” said Calingaert.