The United Kingdom and the US have been branded ‘Enemies of the Internet’ for the first time by Reporters Without Borders on their annual list of countries which disrupt freedom of information through surveillance and censorship.
Both the US and the UK were included in the list for first time as a result of revelations from the Whistleblower Edward Snowden into the activities of the American and British spy agencies.
In fact Edward Snowden branded the UK, where the government has largely ignored calls to reign in the nation’s spooks and the public remain apathetic, as “worse than the US”.
Snowden outlines various “widespread surveillance practices” operated by GCHQ as part of its plan called “Mastering the internet”.
“The Internet was a collective resource that the NSA and GCHQ turned into a weapon in the service of special interests, in the process flouting freedom of information, freedom of expression and the right to privacy,” say the report’s authors.
The UK, says the press watchdog, paid scant heed to any legal considerations when harvesting huge amounts of data.
“Supported by the NSA and with the prospect of sharing data, the British agency brushed aside all legal obstacles and embarked on mass surveillance of nearly a quarter of the world’s communications,” the report says.
The authors go on to note that the UK is in a unique global position to scoop up internet traffic because many of the landing points of global cables down which internet information travels land on British soil.
“The best known is at Bude in Cornwall, which hosts seven cables including Apollo North which links the UK and the United States, and more particularly TAT-14, which connects the United States and Europe – which US diplomatic cables have called an “essential resource”."
This means that GCHQ can eavesdrop on exchanges between citizens in Europe and people in the US.
The report also blasts Britain for “confusing journalism and terrorism”, and criticizes the UK government for putting excessive pressure on the Guardian newspaper “to suppress the scandal of the GCHQ wiretaps” and of wrongfully arresting David Miranda.
Miranda was the partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and was stopped and held for the maximum permitted nine hours under anti-terrorism laws by UK authorities on his way through London Heathrow airport carrying what were deemed sensitive encrypted documents from US film maker Laura Poitras in Berlin.
While Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was hauled up in front of a committee of MPs and peers and grilled about his papers role in publishing the Snowden revelations. There were also calls from some members of the right wing establishment for him to be investigated by the police and prosecuted although this was quickly dropped when it became clear there was no case against the newspaper.
Reporters Without Borders make it quite clear that in most cases it is not actually governments that are to blame, but much smaller government units, such as the Operations and Analysis Centre in Belarus and GCHQ in the UK.
The fact that countries such as the UK, US and India – another new addition on the list – are now in the same boat as authoritarian regimes such as North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabiya and Belarus is cause for considerable concern. Russia’s FSB is also on the list as an agency that has gone beyond its core duty of national security. While China is also labeled as “an expert in information control” even since it created “the Electronic Great Wall”.
“The mass surveillance methods employed in these three countries, many of them exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, are all the more intolerable because they will be used and indeed are already being used by authoritarians countries such as Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain,” states the report.
"How will so-called democratic countries be able to press for the protection of journalists if they adopt the very practices they are criticizing authoritarian regimes for?” the authors add.
The study also notes that the activities of the Enemies of the Internet would not be possible without the tools developed by private sector companies and that here the contradictory behavior of the western democracies should be noted.
One of the major forums or trade fairs specializing in this technology was recently hosted by France despite the French government’s vocal criticism of the activities of the NSA.
Reporters without Borders urged the EU, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, to guarantee unrestricted internet access and digital freedoms in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The report concludes by recommending that international bodies such as the United Nations be pressed to protect internet data and regulate surveillance. It also says that journalists and other information providers should learn how to protect their data and communications.