Governments across the world have tried to tame the Internet as a tempest of new technology threatens everything from strict government censorship and control over the media to entrenched media conglomerates and old concepts of acceptable speech. Like King Canute commanding the tide to turn back and not disturb him, governments have put up laws against everything from forwarding emails and commenting online in an attempt to stop the inevitable.
Many of us take for granted the freedoms we have online, but there are some people that could only dream they had the freedoms we have. Still, even those of us living in more developed countries are restricted online.
Skype & Voice-Chatting Online
Under a draft bill, Skype and other voice-over-IP (VoIP) services would soon be illegal in Ethiopia. Initially, news organizations reported that anyone using Skype could end up with a 15 year jail sentence ( ). However, it appears that the reporting was sensationalist and the law appears designed primarily to prevent businesses from offering their own VoIP services. However, the law also includes this line:
Whosoever intentionally or by negligence obtains the [VoIP] service stipulated under sub-article (3) of this article commits an offence and shall be punishable with imprisonment from 3 months to 3 years…
In other words, it appears that using Skype to call a telephone through the Internet could land you 3 years in jail. Even worse, Ethiopia’s previous (current) law, passed in 2002, says:
The use or provision of voice communication or fax services through the Internet are prohibited. (Source)
It appears that Skype has already been illegal in Ethiopia for a decade. This law appears designed to crack down on competition to Ethiopia’s government-owned telephone company, as well as giving the government control over voice communications.
Blogging & Forwarding Emails
Some authoritarian governments crack down on any form of speech they dislike – generally political speech that portrays the government in a bad light. For example, according to Human Rights Watch’s 2005 False Freedom report,
The [Syrian] government has detained people for expressing their opinions or reporting information online, and even for forwarding political jokes by email. Syrian bloggers and human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that plainclothes security officers maintain a close watch over Internet cafés. (Source)
The next time you express your opinion online or forward a funny joke email, remember that you could be arrested for it if you had been born in a different country.
Commenting & Online Anonymity
Syria doesn’t just arrest people for blogging and forwarding emails, they also take action against people that leave comments the government doesn’t like. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2007,
Syrian authorities have held two men in incommunicado detention since June for expressing online views that are critical of the Syrian government. Authorities have refused to disclose the whereabouts of the detained men to their families. On September 23, the Supreme State Security Court sentenced a third man to two years in prison for posting online comments that displeased the authorities. (Source)
To ensure people can’t leave comments with anonymity and flout the authorities, Syria demands that websites clearly display the real names of their commenters, allowing them to be tracked down. Websites that refuse to do so are blocked. They also passed a law that required Internet café owners to spy on customers that access certain, “sensitive” websites.
Disrespecting King Or Religion
While it may not be surprising that authoritarian governments will arrest people for criticizing the government, you may be surprised at the other types of speech people can get arrested for. In some countries, people can be arrested for criticizing the country’s king or religion.
In Thailand, an American citizen was arrested for translating an article that was “offensive to the monarchy” and posting it on his blog. (Source). Thailand has strict “lese-majesty” laws – insulting the monarchy can result in up to 15 years in prison. Lese-majesty is based on a French term, which translates to “injured majesty.”
While online gambling is legal in many countries worldwide, it’s most notably illegal in the United States, where American online gamblers often end up using offshore websites. So far, the American government has only arrested people for running online gambling websites – in one case, a UK citizen was arrested at an airport in Texas while transferring planes during a trip between the United Kingdom and Costa Rica because he ran a large online-gambling website that took bets from Americans (Source).
However, the government has also threatened the average person with arrest in the past – in 2008, March Madness sports betting pools started popping up on Facebook. The FBI warned people publically that they could be arrested for running an office-wide online gambling pool on Facebook (Source). All March Madness betting pools are illegal in the US, too – but the online ones allow the government to crack down more easily.
File sharing may not technically belong on this list, as people are technically sued in civil court and not arrested for downloading content without permission. However, file sharing is what most people will think of when they consider government restrictions on the Internet. From SOPA to ACTA, it’s a hot topic these days.
While it’s obvious to say that sharing unauthorized files can land many Internet users in hot water, file sharing for personal use is actually perfectly legal in some countries. For example, in the Netherlands, downloading files for personal use is legal – it’s considered “fair use.” (Source)
Do you know of any other common things Internet users can get arrested for? Leave a comment below and join the discussion.
Image Credit: Handcuffs on Laptop via Shutterstock, Victim With Mouth Related via Shutterstock, Prisoner in Old Jail Cell via Shutterstock, Traditional Thai Architecture via Shutterstock, Two Dice via Shutterstock