Arab dissidents who have used the internet to organize street protests have encountered “astounding” levels of intimidation and arrest since the onset of the Arab Spring, according to a study by Harvard University.
Researchers also found that new regimes, such as Egypt’s new government, are just as aggressive in going after Internet critics as were the repressive regimes they replaced.
Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society noted that large numbers of Internet dissidents have made it easy for the authorities to find them by failing to take defensive measures to protect their identities.
One third of the 98 bloggers surveyed said they have bean threatened for their opinions and one fifth reported that their on-line accounts had been hacked. Almost a tenth of the respondents admitted to being arrested or detained for their on-line activity, according to the Middle Eastern media watchdog website “The Media Line.”
“I’m constantly receiving threats from paramilitary forces, members of Lebanese political parties and anonymous people related to my online support of cyber-dissidents in the region,” Imad Bazzi, a Lebanese activist, told Media Line.
The Media Line states as its goal the promotion of accuracy among regional journalists through the Mideast Press Club and accurate reporting of the Middle East. On the Harvard report, it noted:
The Internet has played a key role in the spread of protests this year, with activists bypassing media and communications networks controlled by governments in favor of social media to spread the word of upcoming rallies and report news. The authorities have responded by imposing stricter controls and in some cases shutting down networks entirely.
In Syria, a well-organized effort known as the Syrian Electronic Army has been carrying out attacks to disable and compromise websites critical of the regime as mass protests enter their sixth month. In Saudi Arabia, the government in January extended censorship for the printed press to cover the Internet, including blog sites. It has since toughened the rules.
Even countries where protestors have ousted long-time despots, successor governments have been acting to douse critical bloggers. Egyptian Asmaa Mahfouz was arrested on Sunday and released on bail after she was accused of using Facebook and Twitter to defame the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In Tunisia, the government was blamed for a phishing attack against human rights activists in an effort to gain access to their Gmail accounts.
The tough treatment meted out to bloggers was to be expected, according to the Berkman report, which noted that the survey was taken amid a surge of on-line activity spawned by the Arab Spring, and just one of the 98 bloggers surveyed described himself as pro-government. Nevertheless, researchers said the extent of the crackdown was “astounding.”
The researchers found that Arab bloggers were often unaware of the available security measures to protect their identity. Most bloggers reported choosing an e-mail provider based on design and sharing capabilities rather than its ability to protect their security. The bloggers’ responses revealed that their knowledge and practice of on-line security ranged “from fair to very poor,” the study found.
Asked how they identify themselves on-line, 49% told the Berkman researchers that they used their full name while 47% said they provided an e-mail address and 42% a photograph of themselves. Only 20% rated “resistance to sharing data with your government” as one of the three most important features of a company hosting their blog, the Berkman report showed.