Internet Access, Freedom of Speech, and VoIP: VoIP Calls Banned Where Internet Censorship Thrives

The UN's Human Rights Council (HRC) was very busy yesterday, dealing with 12 resolutions related to the "promotion and protection of all human rights." One of the resolutions, sandwiched between some seriously weighty issues such as human trafficking, conscientious objection, and violence against women, was a little matter about the Internet. This is how the UN summarized its thoughts about the "series of tubes" that provides most of us with information, Groupon deals, and online bill paying services:

Concerning the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, the Council affirmed that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.

Guaranteed Internet Access?

A lot of news outlets have misinterpreted the HRC decision as saying that Internet access is a basic human right. However, for most (even in the US) it's still a privilege. Although it's worth pointing out that, with public access available through municipal libraries, it is pretty darn close to an inalienable right in the US. Maybe as close to a right as one could reasonably expect of something that provides easy access to pharmaceuticals, live sporting events, farm sex videos, and dramatic prairie dogs, all quite possibly in the same browsing session. (Hopefully not while at the public library.)

The human rights aspect of the Internet that the UN actually recognized, however, is that, if you do have Internet access — whether you live in North Korea, the US, or Malawi — you should totally be able to say what you want. Or, more specifically, say the same things online that you can say offline.

The UN's HRC did touch a little on Internet access, though, saying it "calls upon all States to promote and facilitate access to the Internet."

Let's be clear, though: Unabridged freedom of expression online is not the same as guaranteed Internet access. In fact, the UN HRC couldn't have been more clear about that point than when it stated:

"The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice."

VoIP Access: Freedom of Speech via Phone Is a Lot Harder to Redact

When the UN HRC talks about providing freedom of speech "through any media of one's choice," that should apply to VoIP phone service as much as it does to Internet forums. However, when choice of media, according to the UN, applies only in situations where rights offline equal rights online, that 'media of one's choice' caveat doesn't really carry much weight.

It should go without saying that if you have access to the Internet, and freedom of speech on the Internet, then you would have access to VoIP services and be able to communicate freely. Or at least for a small surcharge, if you live in Sweden or South Korea.

For the countries that don't support freedom of speech, the Internet is a giant battleground and a continuous flurry of activity: blocking domains and IPs, ferreting out proxies, expunging comments, removing posts from message boards, deleting accounts of users who belittle leadership, and so on. Throw in VoIP phone calls, and acting as the thought police becomes a much more challenging job.

Some countries choose, therefore, just to block access to VoIP services altogether, or even make it potentially illegal. Self-appointed vigilante hackers Anonymous announced just this week that the United Arab Emirates is blocking access to sites that just provide information about using VoIP services, in addition to VoIP phone service providers themselves.

VoIP Blocked: Econo-Political Censorship

Many of the countries that are blocking VoIP access entirely tie the restrictions back to some sort of national security concerns, as Ethiopia has. Well, that and revenue loss, since the phone company is usually a government entity.

China's Ministry of Information Technology prohibits any VoIP services that aren't offered by its own state-run telecoms. Belize is another country that has prohibited access to VoIP services, ostensibly to encourage ongoing corporate investments in national infrastructure.

Oman only recently allowed access to some VoIP services such as Google Talk and Viber for similar reasons: It has a huge expat workforce that, it's feared, would flock to VoIP rather than pay the exorbitant international rates of Omani telecoms.

Just Say No to VoIP: Religious and Political Censorship

Other countries such as Uzbekistan and Kuwait, well... There, the lack of access to VoIP phone service is seemingly as much about political and/or religious censorship as it is focused on protectionism. As the recent Anonymous announcement reveals about UAE censorship, many sex and dating sites, as well as domains containing words such as "Christian" or "Jesus," were blocked as well as VoIP sites. Middle Eastern countries censor the Internet for pernicious influences, and VoIP often gets swept up right along with everything else.

Even India, while not blocking VoIP service, is seeking to secure certain concessions from VoIP service providers: A means to intercept and identify the person on the receiving end of an unregistered VoIP call. This is primarily due to the fact that Islamist organizations are reportedly using VoIP to communicate. Hardly surprising, then, that India was among the countries who didn't fully support the HRC resolution.

Grudging Support of the Internet: Still Crazy After All These Years

The HRC resolution (with 85 co-sponsors) was adopted without a vote, although plenty of countries had something to say about it, especially the countries that currently do not support freedom of speech online. (I'm looking at you, China.)

Tunisia, not exactly a bastion of human rights, surprisingly gave the Internet a big thumbs up, saying that it was a useful tool for "the enjoyment of human rights with enormous potential and that access to it should be guaranteed for everyone."

China and Cuba waffled a bit, not quite fully endorsing the Internet as a medium of free speech. China basically pointed out that not every country (like, er, China) actually supports free speech, and hoped the UN would give the country a pass on the whole Internet thing.

More diplomatically stated, China hoped the UN would recognize "different views of countries on freedom of speech and on controlling the Internet." Chinese citizens, who don't enjoy unfettered access to the world wide web, already have ho-hummed the resolution.

Cuba, on the other hand, was concerned about the fact that not everyone had access to the Internet (they're still driving Studebakers, let's get real), and that the Internet was run by one country (I'm pretty sure that was a jab at the US, but then I didn't really think we ran the Internet, because if we did, then what's with all the Russian phishing scams?), and that was generally not a Good Thing. On the whole, though, this concern was basically tied to the whole the-UN-should-take-ownership-of-the-Internet concept that we talked about last month, a move that, if it had not gone over like a lead balloon, would have put Cuba's allies Russia and China in charge of everything.