Press Watchdog Lumps NSA With ‘Enemies of the Internet’ in China, Iran

By Patrick Goodenough | March 12, 2014 | 4:53 AM EDT

An international press freedom advocacy group has included the National Security Agency on its list of 'enemies of the Internet.' (AP Photo, File)

( – The press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders has listed the National Security Agency and agencies in Britain and India as “enemies of the Internet,” lumping the organizations in the three democracies together with those in repressive regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Paris-based organization included the NSA, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Britain, and India’s Center for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) in its new list of Internet “enemies,” released to coincide with the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship on Wednesday.

Its previous such report, in 2012, named 11 countries notorious for online censorship and surveillance – Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

This time, Reporters Without Borders is focusing on specific government agencies rather than governments themselves, a shift which it said enabled it “to draw attention to the schizophrenic attitude towards online freedoms that prevails in some countries.”

The U.S., British and Indian agencies, it said, “are no better than their Chinese, Russian, Iranian or Bahraini counterparts.”

Citing the reported spying on millions of citizens by the NSA and GCHQ, the report said the agencies have turned the Internet, a collective resource, “into a weapon in the service of special interests, in the process flouting freedom of information, freedom of expression and the right to privacy.”

The methods used were “all the more intolerable” because countries like Iran, China, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia were already using them to justify their own freedom of information violations, Reporters Without Borders charged.

“How will so-called democratic countries will able to press for the protection of journalists if they adopt the very practices they are criticizing authoritarian regimes for?”

Beyond the NSA itself, the report was also critical of the Obama administration’s targeting of journalists and whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who since mid-2013 has exposed the extent of NSA spying on American citizens and foreigners, including leaders of European allies.

Furthermore, it said, “U.S. surveillance practices and decryption activities are a direct threat to investigative journalists, especially those who work with sensitive sources for whom confidentiality is paramount and who are already under pressure.”

Britain’s GCHQ was criticized for intercepting and sharing with the NSA “millions of emails, telephone calls, browsing histories and all types of digital content.”

“Documents disclosed by Snowden explain that the British agency keeps the content, including the contents of emails and telephone conversations, for three days and the metadata, such as login times, telephone numbers, originators and addressees and email subjects, are kept for 30 days, a boon for both GCHQ and the NSA.”

In India, the report said the C-DOT has developed a monitoring system that “allows the government direct, unlimited and real-time access to a wide variety of electronic communications without relying on internet service providers.”

The system allows authorities to mount web searches using keywords deemed ‘sensitive,’ without specific authorization, and without notice to internet service providers.”

Apart from the U.S., British and Indian agencies, the 2014 “Enemies of the Internet” report lists government bodies in 16 other countries. They include 10 of the 11 countries that featured in the last report (Burma is missing) as well as agencies in a further six countries – Cuba, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

In another departure from the previous report, the 2014 one also identifies as Internet “enemies” trade fairs that are used by private companies to promote their latest spying technology to authoritarian regimes.

Other issues highlighted in the new report include:

--In the UAE, online content defined as eligible for blocking by the state includes material relating to gambling, religious hatred and subjects “conflicting with UAE ethics and morals, including nudity and dating.”

--Saudi government agencies don’t conceal their online censorship efforts, reporting openly that they have blocked more than 400,000 websites. YouTube has been blocked since December and Internet cafes are monitored by video camera.

--Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-controlled internet service provider “boasts it has blocked access to millions of sites.” Censorship also covers political news and information, and Iran is developing a national “halal” online system that will not be connected to the World Wide Web.

--China continues to wield the most sophisticated Internet censorship system in existence, and remains “the world’s biggest prison for netizens,” with at least 70 online information providers, including Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, currently behind bars.

--Vietnam’s government tolerates no online political debate and targets bloggers and cyber-dissidents who question its legitimacy or policies. The use of social media to share information reported in the press is prohibited under a 2013 decree, which the report describes as “a tool to maintain the Communist Party in power.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow