VIENNA State restrictions on use of the Internet have spread to more than 20 countries that use catch-all and contradictory rules to help keep people off line and stifle feared political opposition, a new report says.
In "Governing the Internet", the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) presented case studies of Web censorship in Kazakhstan and Georgia and referred to similar findings in nations from China to Iran, Sudan and Belarus.
"Recent moves against free speech on the Internet in a number of countries have provided a bitter reminder of the ease with which some regimes, democracies and dictatorships alike, seek to suppress speech that they disapprove of, dislike, or simply fear," the report by the 56-nation OSCE said.
"Speaking out has never been easier than on the Web. Yet at the same time, we are witnessing the spread of Internet censorship," the 212-page report said.
In a new case not covered by the report, a senior Malaysian minister vowed this week to apply law prescribing jail terms for Web writers of comments said to disparage Islam or the king.
Malaysian police grilled one on-line author over postings the ruling party described as an attack on the country's state religion and a bid to stir racial tension.
In Kazakhstan, rules on Internet use are so vague and politicized that they "allow for any interpretation ..., easily triggering Soviet-style 'spy mania'" where any dissident individual or organisation could be branded a threat to national well-being and silenced, according to the OSCE report.
It cited a prominent incident in 2005 when Kazakhstan seized all .kz Internet domains and closed one deemed offensive and run by British satirist Sacha Baron Cohen, who had made the acclaimed spoof film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan".
In a speech to the OSCE parliament on Thursday, Kazakh Information Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbayev insisted Kazakhstan was determined to build democracy and create an "e-government" expanding Internet service and making "our media more free, contemporary and independent".
The OSCE report said Kazakhstan's state monopoly on Internet providers tended to deter use by making prices for all but very slow and limited dial-up service far higher than those for West Europeans even though Kazakh incomes are much lower.
Georgian law contained "contradictory and ill-defined" provisions which might "give leverage for illegitimate limitation" of free expression on the Internet, the report said.