Could the internet be the greatest obstacle to free speech?

Consider the internet as the greatest obstacle to free speech. Its sounds counter-intuitive, but according to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the net serves as the “greatest spying machine the world has ever seen”.

In an address to Cambridge University students on Tuesday, Assange said social networking sites such as Facebook gave governments greater scope for snooping. “There was actually a Facebook revolt in Cairo three or four years ago,” Assange explained.

“It was very small… After it, Facebook was used to round up all the principal participants and they were then beaten, interrogated and incarcerated.

“So while the Internet has in some ways an ability to let us know to an unprecedented level what government is doing… it is also the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen,” he added.

The rise of technology was helping tyrannical regimes, said the 39-year-old Australian, who is currently fighting extradition to Sweden over allegations of sex offences.

“It is not a technology that favours freedom of speech,” he claimed.

“It is not a technology that favours human rights, rather it is a technology that can be used to set up a totalitarian spying regime, the likes of which we have never seen.”

Assange acknowledged that the web could allow greater government transparency and better co-operation between activists, but said it gave authorities their best ever opportunity to monitor and catch dissidents. He also stood by his statement that WikiLeaks had helped trigger the ongoing Arab uprising.

Assange says the release of official US diplomatic documents had “changed part of the dynamics” in Tunisia, resulting in eventual regime change. He also suggested that Facebook and Twitter played less of a role in the unrest in the Middle East than has previously been argued by social media commentators and politicians.

Assange sympathised with imprisoned US soldier Bradley Manning, who is suspected of having leaked the cables.

“Our support for his plight cannot be stated too loudly,” he said. Assange also criticised the New York Times, which he claimed had suppressed stories about secret American military activity in Afghanistan.

Assange’s claims are not isolated. Simon Black of says government is spying on private citizens. He advisers readers to opt for a more private web surfing experience, using browser add-ons like Tor, which allows users to go through secure tunnel that will change their IP address.

In 2007, ABC News covered the story of an AT&T employee and whistleblower who claimed the telecommunication services provider has a secret room that sends internet data to government.

It would be difficult to say whose e-mail, text messages or internet phone calls the government is monitoring at any given time, but according to a former AT&T employee, the government has warrantless access to a great deal of internet traffic should they care to take a peek, according to a report by Z Byron Wolf.

However, according to US Homland Security Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, fighting homegrown terrorism by monitoring internet communications is a civil liberties trade-off the U.S. government must make to beef up national security.

Napolitano’s comments suggest an effort by the Obama administration to reach out to its more liberal constituencies to lower fears that anti-terrorist efforts will lead to the erosion of civil rights.

China’s state-owned China Daily newspaper said last year that the internet needed to be “both free and regulated”.

The question of internet freedom in any country is connected with local customs and cultural traditions, and should not be politicised, the paper added.

However, in the minds of activists, like Assange regulation by the government is a form of control by that very same government. And in that lies the challenge to civil liberties because it opens to the door to state-sponsored spying.



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