Internet freedom on Edward Snowden’s flight path

Regardless of what you think of Edward Snowden's actions (fairly honourable, in my view), the attempt to hide out in countries with some fairly questionable records on media freedom is raising eyebrows.

Regardless of what you think of Edward Snowden’s actions (fairly honourable, in my view), the attempt to hide out in countries with questionable records on media freedom is raising eyebrows.

Doesn’t a whistleblower need to be consistent in their denunciations of injustice? Is freedom for those outside the bubble of the West not just as important as it is for Facebook-serfing Americans and Europeans?

It’s easy for me to say this from my warm office in East London of course, but I believe the answer is yes.

Calling the American state out for breaches of civil liberties would carry more weight in my opinion if Snowden wasn’t sheltering under the wing of some of the worst civil rights abusers in the world.

Here is the state of media and internet freedom in the countries Edward Snowden has already spent time in as well as two more (Cuba and Ecuador) it is speculated he is headed for.

It doesn’t make for pleasant reading.


Blocks on foreign websites, close monitoring of online activity, every internet user in China having to register with service providers using their full name. These are just some of the challenges internet users in China face. Freedom House ranked China as the third most restrictive country in the world in terms of internet access, after Iran and Cuba.

The main methods used by the Chinese to control the net are the Great Firewall – a system that limits access to foreign websites – and the Golden Shield, a method of domestic surveillance set up in 1998 by the ministry of Public Security.


In July 2012 the Russian Parliament adopted a bill to establish a central register of banned websites. Experts say the aim of the bill is to control the country’s civil society and social networks.

In 2011 an official with the federal security service proposed a ban on Skype, Gmail and Hotmail here because their use was “uncontrolled”.

President at the time Dmitry Medvedev criticized the proposal. However a spokesman for prime minister Vladimir Putin said it was worth studying and called the FSB’s proposal “quite well-reasoned.”


Until very recently internet access in Cuba was severely restricted – most Cubans were only able to use a local intranet featuring government sites. Even for tourists access to the net in Cuba is both expensive and woefully poor.

If a Cuban citizen is able to gain access to a facility with internet access the cost is extremely prohibitive. An hour long web session can cost around $4 – almost a quarter of the average monthly salary.

“Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for the Internet and other information and communication technologies,” Freedom House wrote in its 2012 report entitled ‘Freedom on the Net‘.


Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has presided over a gradual erosion of media and judicial freedom since he was elected president in 2006. His ‘new media law’, dubbed a gag law by human rights groups, gives the government greater power to regulate the media and called for the establishment of a watchdog which could impose fines and force public apologies.

The new bill allows Ecuador’s a government-sponsored body to sanction media outlets for not reporting news the government believes should be reported and levy fines for content the council believes is overly critical or untrue.
Activists have also noted a rise in Internet censorship, with the government shutting down or censoring new-media outlets such as Twitter when criticisms of the state have surfaced there.

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23 Responses to “Internet freedom on Edward Snowden’s flight path”

  1. Neil Warner

    Where else is he meant to go? When political dissidents flee from the likes of China to the United States you don’t often hear people critiquing their hypocrisy for taking refuge in another country with a dubious human rights record.

  2. Simjenkins1

    Where is the moral equivalence here? What about the poor press record of the US? The US war against whistleblowers? What about the treatment of Bradley Manning? What about the recent interview between Piers Morgan and Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the pentagon Papers, where he asked:

    MORGAN: Let me ask you, Daniel Ellsberg, one of the criticisms about
    Edward Snowden is he fled America and went to Hong Kong. You didn’t.
    You stayed in America, and in the end, the charges against you did not
    lead to a prosecution. Should he have stayed —

    — Pardon me. Of course, I’m sorry, I don’t know how old you are, but I
    have to say I did face prosecution. I was facing 12 felony —

    MORGAN: You weren’t — but the charges were dropped, right?

    They were dropped because the president was, among other things,
    conducting warrantless wiretapping on which I was overheard and lying
    about it, by the way. Something that figured in his impeachment hearings
    that led to his resignation. Also, he sent people in my doctor’s
    office to get information with which to blackmail me into silence about
    more secrets about his own administration. And he’d sent people to
    incapacitate me totally, something that no one has really claimed the
    president had power to do until President Obama, actually, who does
    claim that power to do it again suspects —

    MORGAN: So should Snowden —

    ELLSBERG: — even American citizens anywhere in the world.

    MORGAN: Should Snowden – right. Should Edward Snowden have stayed in America?

    No, I think – first, I think he’s benefited very much — he’s
    benefited. He’s caused this debate, as you say, and I hope some real
    change and some real oversight. The oversight system in both Congress
    and the judiciary has been shown to be, by his own revelations, totally
    broken. But if he had stayed in this country, he would be where Bradley
    Manning has been for the last three years. At last he’s on trial. He
    spent 10-and-a-half months in solitary, some of it naked. Edward
    Snowden would be in that same cell or some other cell like it

    I think he was very wise to be telling us this
    information from outside the country. It’s a different country from
    when I released this 40 years ago. Then I was out on bail for two years
    during that trial. And I was out on a $50,000 bond. I was able to
    explain what I had done and what I thought were the crimes revealed in
    that information. Which I —

    MORGAN: Okay.

    As a matter of fact, the things that were done against me to keep me
    silent were then all illegal, which was a matter of pride as an
    American. Now they have been made legal, but that doesn’t mean they are
    made constitutional. They were unconstitutional —

    MORGAN: OK, let me bring —

    ELLSBERG: ACLU thinks now.

  3. Circuit Ben

    Cuba is subject to embargoes by the US, which keeps it in a developing state, technologically speaking. Blaming Cuba for their slow progress in internet acceptance, is like blaming Americans for being under-educated – in the land without facts, the simpleton is king. America has a budget for propaganda that exceeds Cuba’s GDP, of course you are going to view Cuba as backward and repressive, how is it possible not to?

  4. Salman Shaheen

    The American government will do anything it can do to lock him up, he can hardly be blamed for doing anything he can to remain free.

  5. SimonWait

    “If Snowden were Chinese or Iranian, had leaked info about their spying and then sought asylum in US, we’d grant it and call him a hero.” Stephen Walt

  6. Tom

    That doesn’t make any sense when you consider Cuba has such a good health system. Giving its citizens good internet access is well within the government’s grasp.

  7. bsnews

    James you appear to be missing the point, or glossing over it while painting enemies of the west as less free than US / UK. Where would you suggest Mr Snowden should seek shelter from the shitstorm that is Obama’s war on whistleblowers? The UK? Sweden? Neither has a good track record in these matters.

    This is the same bilge we heard about Chavez regarding the freedom of the press or lack thereof. Most failed to realise that it was the media organisation that participated in the US backed coup of 2002 that was the only outlet to not have their license renewed.

  8. redadare

    Exactly what I wanted to say, but much more eloquently put!

  9. Robin Carmody

    There seem to be two fundamentally irreconcilable arguments here – the one in the original post, and the counter-argument in most of the comments which, in part, says that what we now think of as unacceptable political censorship of free media was seen as perfectly unremarkable and in fact actively supported, especially by the (Old) Left, in Britain in the days of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

    Too many discussions on these matters turn into a sort of head tennis, with one person saying that (which is a legitimate argument, in its own way and its own level, and the one I used to lean towards and can still feel a romantic affection for) and another person saying that that was a different time and the rules *have* to be different now (which is also a legitimate argument, and the one I tend to lean towards now, at least objectively). But “I’m right” / “no, I’m right”, repeated unto infinity, never really gets us anywhere. What needs to be reached is some kind of balance; unfortunately, humanity’s tribal streak tends to prevent this.

  10. Alec

    Back to face the music and show the courage of his so-called convictions?
    Whatever the rights or wrongs of US surveillance, the following is not up for debate… Lao Gai is in no way shape of form comparable, and to state that it is shows a complete divorce from reality.

  11. Philip

    The poor guy doesn’t have much choice. Why does he have to be morally ‘consistent’? That’s armchair morality if ever I heard it. He’s a living, breathing human being who’s being hunted like a dog by the most fearsome security apparatus on planet earth. Give him a sodding break, would you? The goal of being on the run is to not be found, not to make some profound moral point. Plus, as I understand it, he was only in Russia because that’s where he had to change flights. Please don’t swallow all the propaganda.

    Also, please name the nations without questionable records on media freedom. Bonus points if any of those aren’t guaranteed to hand him over to the CIA immediately.

  12. Neil Warner

    Sorry, I didn’t realise that performing a public serviceby telling the world about the dubious actions of the US government was only legitimate if you masochistically submitted yourself to probable life imprisonment in return. Considering the treatment which Bradley Manning has received Snowden is particularly justified in feeling his would not receive a fair trial and subject to cruel and unusual punishment. Regardless of differences in the system, it is perfectly right to raise the fact that the hypocrisy question is only raised on when Americans flee to China, never the other way round. And I note you don’t have a response to that.

  13. Neil Warner

    It’s quite plausible that Snowden faced a fate as bad or worse than, say, what Chen Guangcheng had endured or faced when he sought refuge in the US. But, quite rightly, I don’t remember anyone attacking Chen for his hypocrisy. Which is ironically quite hypocritical.

  14. Alec

    No it’s not. You’re being offensively stupid. Chen Guangcheng was a private individual who faced a fate you never will, as a non-government employee or Snowden would have had he not attempted an elaborate shake-down.


  15. Alec

    Stop question begging. I told you, it’s not up for debate.
    Nothing in the US is comparable to Lao Gai.

  16. Neil Warner

    I’m not. I’m not dismissing Chen’s situation, I’m pointing out that you are offensively dismissing Snowden’s. Yes Chen faced a situation I never will, but so does Snowden. What Manning has gone through has been appalling and as bad if not worse than what Chen went through, there is reason to believe Snowden would have gone through the same (or worse, considering his leak has been more significant than Manning’s)

  17. Neil Warner

    Sorry if reasoned argument bothers you. It is up for debate, whether you are open-minded enough to have that, and to consider my “question-begging”, is of course another matter entirely.

  18. Alec

    Yes you are dismissing it. Chen was reporting on daily privations which were forced in his and everyone else’s face. Snowden’s shake-down was for the hardly earth-shattering news that law enforcement agencies seek access to online data (both in principle, and in newsworthiness… this has been in the public domain for years). Both the Graun and WaPo have retracted the original claims of direct hacking and much more

    There’s a reason Snowden and not Glenn Greenwad is being pursued. It’s because he broke his terms of employment and stole classified information whilst the other merely ‘reported’ – a very loose term – on it. Reporters get arrested and gaoled and killed in places like China or Russia or Cuba or Equador..

    As for Manning, if he’d sought a controlled release of data as in Ellsberg and Russo, then I’d have seen him as a brave truthteller. Instead, what I see is an unsubordinate **** who was simply out for spiteful revenge after being passed over.
    And Assange went ahead and published what was basically diplomatic gossip, putting in danger a great many like Chen. Then , to compound it, gave… no… sold unredacted data on Eastern European dissidents to an unreconstructed neo-Nazi with direct links to the Belarusian dictatorship.
    Throw Manning in FedEx, and leave Assange to rot at the embassy.

  19. Alec

    You have a very high opinion of your argument style.

    You are asking leading questions which place the worst possible interprepation of your opponents’ statements (often plucked out of thin air when compared to what they actually said). That is question begging.

    The very fact that you and your contempories in the US are able to have this discussion without detention to the gulag shows that there is zero comparison to Lao Gai.


  20. Neil Warner

    No I don’t, I just think saying that there’s “no debate” is an incredibly silly assertion. An if anything simply shows that you have an incredibly high opinion of your own opinions, if you think there’s no debate. I never said there should be comparison to between the US and China as political systems- you let your emotion get the better of you, preventing you from seeing the comparison I’m actually making. I’m simply contrasting attitudes towards Chinese people seeking refuge from human rights abuse to Americans seeking refuge from human rights abuses. The two systems themselves don’t need to be the same for that comparison to be made.

  21. Neil Warner

    No I’m not, not at all. I think that both cases are cases of people seeking refuge from different kinds potential human rights abuses. You are saying only one is. You are dismissing Snowden (and now Manning). I am not dismissing anyone.

    Manning did initially seek to give his information directly to papers in the US, but they ignored him. And the release of data by wikileaks actually was controlled, in collaboration with the likes of the guardian, to make sure it didn’t put anyone at risk. There’s been no evidence given that the diplomatic cables or anything else released by Manning put the lives of anyone, least of all dissidents like Chen, at risk. And how in the hell did could he have hoped achieve “vindictive revenge” against anyone by releasing what he did?

    Yes, they broke the law. So did Chen, technically (again, and I shouldn’t have to say this really, I’m not drawing a general comparison between the two instances, just pointing out that one fact as it goes against your particular argument). There is a long tradition of acts of civil disobedience, including in western democracies, that break the law in the name of the greater good.

    Much more importantly, I note you didn’t raise the appalling conditions Manning has been kept in or which Snowden faced – just their actions. That gives an interesting insight into what seems to be a remarkably narrow understanding of human rights that you have.

    I never mentioned Assange. That you bring him up indicates to me that you are responding to a caricature in you head with respect to what Snowden, Manning and their defenders rather than the issue in question. I never said they “stumbled upon a great truth about the nefarious US” – the US has done plenty more worse that is public knowledge than anything revealed in these leaks. Doesn’t mean their rights shouldn’t be protected, especially considering the acted in the public interest.

  22. Neil Warner

    And what I said was not “plucked out of thin air when compared to what they actually said”. They are simply the basic logical corollary of your assertion that he should “go back to face the music”.

  23. uh

    All those countries are definitely what you would call Anti-American, and they are only willing to help Snowden because it means pissing off Obama. I’m certain Snowden knows this, but yeah he really can’t be too picky

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