Saturday 21 June 2014

Is Iraq Gov’t Wrong to Block Access to Internet Amid Turmoil?

Mashable reports that the Iraq Ministry of Communications is actively blocking access to social media sites as militant groups like ISIL are using these sites to organize themselves.  Users have reported service blockages and the emergence of malware-infected VPNs advertised as ways to circumvent the government’s internet blockage.

The Ministry’s actions highlight a key question related to internet freedom: Does your stance change when the shoe is on the other foot?  In any situation where the government limits access to the internet, we could be universally opposed to any such action in that all people, regardless of their political affiliation or agenda, should have access to the internet in order to communicate and organize.  Supporting internet freedom universally is to adopt a “come what may” mentality about its potential.  It’s even easier if we do not believe those targeted are inherently bad actors or we believe the reason behind the action is flawed.

With Iraq, where the government seems to be directly censoring a potentially dangerous group (and indirectly censoring the larger public), our universal convictions might be called into question.   Mine are.  I recognize that once we start to support the suppression of certain groups’ ability to use the internet, quickly we become submerged in ethical quicksand.  I find myself fighting against the pull of that quicksand when it comes to a militant/terrorist groups like those the Iraqi government seems to be targeting with their blockage.

Where I felt the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan acted far beyond his authority and arrogantly suppressed the voices of his dissenters this spring (and previously), I wonder now not if the Iraqi government’s actions had sufficient cause but rather if their actions in blocking the internet were the most effective means to stymie dangerous forces.  As someone deeply committed to open access, I feel somewhat unsettled to even entertain supporting a government for limiting access to the internet at all, even for security.

Erdogan’s supporters should rightfully push back on my logic since I’m exhibiting less than universal support for internet freedom or, as I’m thinking of it, an appetite for certain exceptions.  Admittedly, this appetite for exceptions is linked to security.  Erdogan would likely claim, even emphatically, his actions were in the name of security, meant to protect the Turkish people against the harm the internet and social media in particular can bring to the masses.  Unlike Erdogan’s crusade, which rallied against social media’s internet danger separate from specific actors, the Iraqi government’s decision to limit access to militant groups promoting propaganda (while still not clearly the most effective means to achieve this result) is different.  Where Erdogan’s actions were ideological, it’s possible the Iraqi government’s are far more situational.

Regardless of how we feel about targeted action taken by the Iraqi government, we must also recognize the larger implications of such action.  Just as the government is limiting this group’s ability to communicate and organize, they are limiting that of millions of other people.  The emergence of potentially compromised/unsafe VPNs and other circumventing tools are putting many at risk, at the hands of those the government initially targeted or other malicious actors and groups.  This is why I question whether the government’s actions were the most reasonable and effective to achieve their desired goals.

AP — Sadr City, Baghdad, June 21, 2014

What do you all think?

Should a government ever take actions like these, and under which circumstances?  Given what we know about the current situation in Iraq, did the Ministry of Communications make the right move?

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