Save Us from Free Speech, Public Hangouts and File Sharing: Internet Censorship Across the Globe
How much a country censors the Internet tells how “free” that country actually is. Internet censorship is a more current and serious issue than one might believe. With social media becoming a powerful tool to raise voices of political dissatisfaction, Internet censorship proportionately rises.
As international SEO experts we’re concerned about restrictions on the web which prevent users from reaching their targeted search. Blocking websites and social media platforms isn’t only “bad for business”. It’s a violation of internationally established human rights such as free speech and freedom of information. This blog post will help you understand how Internet censorship works and which are the most popularly censored topics.
How Is Internet Censorship Done?
Governments have been enforcing surveillance and censorship upon its citizens, media and art since the Roman Empire. E-mails and instant messaging have overtaken the role of letters and telegrams. Online news and blogging is pushing out printed media. Internet has become the main target of controlling flow of information. Here is an outline of the most common strategies how countries censor local Internet usage:
Technical Internet Censorship
- Internet Protocol (IP) address blocking: Access to a certain IP address is denied. If the target website is hosted on a server, all websites on the same server will be blocked.
- Domain name system (DNS) filtering and redirection: Blocking certain types of website domains, e.g. .com, .ru, .us, etc.
- Uniform Resource Locator (URL) filtering: Websites’ URLs are scanned for specific keywords and then blocked if the keywords are found.
- Portal censorship and search result removal: Major portals, including search engines, may exclude web sites that they would ordinarily include.
- Filtering software: Content-control software restricts users from reaching a website page which contains forbidden keywords or material.
Non-technical Internet Censorship
Non-technical and technical censorship go hand-in-hand. The later usually follows the first. The most widespread method of non-technical censorship is by restricting Internet access through laws. Such laws and regulations prohibit different types of content and demand for its removal or to be blocked.
Many times publishers and authors of unwanted content are subject to informal pressure. Persons may receive bribe offerings, threats of bodily harm, prosecution or lawsuits to achieve removal of the content. In countries with a high level of informal pressure and/or strict legal regulations people often self-censor themselves when publishing content on the web.
How is Internet Censorship Measured?
Considering all the technical and legal mechanisms behind Internet censorship, that’s a really tough question. Luckily, there are institutions and organizations which acknowledge the importance of tackling the issue. Till today, there exist three globally recognized issues of extensive reports on Internet censorship. Each report has its own criteria and definitions by which the level of censorship is measured.
Freedom on the Net
Freedom on the Net reports were published under Freedom House – the US non-governmental organization researching human rights, democracy and political freedom. Since 2009 there have been five editions of the report.
The reports are based on surveys that ask a set of questions designed to measure each country’s level of Internet and digital media freedom. Questions focus on three main areas: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. The results from the three areas are combined into a total score for a country (from 0 for best to 100 for worst). Countries are rated as “free” (0 to 30), “partly free” (31 to 60), or “not free” (61 to 100).
The OpenNet Initiative is a collaborative project of several academic institutions. From 2007 to 2013 a series of reports were issued on Internet filtering and surveillance practices by different nations. Due to fear of legal prosecution project organizers decided to abandon the initiative, yet their findings remain open to the public.
Researchers focused on four major themes of Internet content:
- Political: Views and information in opposition to those of the current government or related to human rights, freedom of expression, minority rights, and religious movements.
- Social: Views and information perceived as offensive or as socially sensitive, often related to sexuality, gambling, or illegal drugs and alcohol.
- Conflict/security: Views and information related to armed conflicts, border disputes, separatist movements, and militant groups.
- Internet tools: E-mail, Internet hosting, search, translation, and Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, and censorship or filtering circumvention methods.
Within each area countries were classified as having: “pervasive”, “substantial”, “selective”, “suspected” or “no evidence” of blocking or filtering Internet content.
Enemies of the Internet
In 2006 Reporters without Borders (RSF), a non-governmental organization that advocates freedom of the press, started publishing its list of “Enemies of the Internet“. Since the list’s last update in 2014, it had nineteen countries on it including: China, India, North Korea, Russia, United Kingdom and USA.
Which Topics Are Under Attack?
Going through the above mentioned reports, a clear pattern of the most censored topics becomes visible. Political leadership that strives to hold government power, needs to shut down any opposing voices. This includes non-conformative online press as well as social media platforms. Internet censorship is also used to enforce legislation regarding safety of public moral and protection of intellectual property.
The events of the Arab Spring raveled just how effective and “dangerous” social media can be when raising the masses. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blog platforms triggered an avalanche of messages about freedom and democracy. Through these platforms people created groups and organized demonstrations.
Soon after the events people of Egypt, Libya, and Syria witnessed full Internet shutdowns. In Tunisia, the government hacked into and stole passwords of citizens’ Facebook accounts. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, bloggers were arrested and some are alleged to have been killed. Till today several countries in the region enforce strict censorship of social media.
On of the most infamous countries blocking western social media websites is China. China blocks access to: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and many more. This way the communist leadership aims to diminish Western social influences. Being a leading digital force, the country has its own successful variations of the blocked social media platforms.
Politics and Free Speech
Social media goes hand-in-hand with political free speech. Many governments which are extra sensitive about controlling local politics have stricter regulations on access to social media. But these governments are also driven by a higher degree of paranoia, which extends further along the web. Especially countries in Africa and Middle East with lower or no traces of a democratic political system enforce such censorship.
Ethiopia remains a highly restrictive environment in which to express political dissent online. The OpenNet Initiative report in 2012, conducted that online political and news content in Ethiopia continues to be blocked, including the blogs and websites of a number of recently convicted individuals. Anti-terrorism legislation is abused to target online speech critical to local politics.
— x0rz (@x0rz) December 14, 2016
Uzbekistan has one of the most extensive and pervasive filtering system among the CIS countries. It prevents access to websites regarding independent media, human rights organizations, material critical of the government, discussion of the events in Arab Spring and news about demonstrations and protests. Bloggers face harsh legislation and fines if they write about news or political content.
— RSF_EECA (@RSF_EECA) March 12, 2014
— Naveed Ahmadنويدأحمد (@naveed360) February 14, 2014
Other countries deserving to be mentioned in this category are: Iran, North Korea, Indonesia, Yemen, UAE, Pakistan, Vietnam, Gambia, Eritrea and Turkey.
Sex, Drugs and “Immoral” Content
A country blocking websites of sexual nature or associated with drugs and alcohol, is doing so on grounds of public moral. Especially countries in the Middle East and other countries where Islam is the predominant religion, it is standard practice to block and filter websites on pornography, dating and escort services, drug use, gambling as well as gay and lesbian content. But blocking sites containing child pornography, is standard practice all around the world.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Sudan, Tunisia and Iran used Secure Computing software systems to do this. In 2008 the company was acquired by the global security software company McAfee and there is little information about further activities. In 2013 RSF issued a list of the top 5 “Corporate Enemies of the Internet” which includes Internet surveillance and filtering software companies.
In July 2012, the Russian Parliament passed the Russian Internet Restriction Bill which created a blacklist of Internet sites containing alleged child pornography, drug-related material, extremist material, and other content illegal in Russia. RSF criticized the procedure by which entries are added to the blacklist as “extremely opaque”, and viewed it as part of an attack on the freedom of information in Russia. To get regular updates on Russia’s Internet Blacklist check the Twitter account @RuBlacklist_en.
Internet censorship should not be interpreted only in context of violating free speech and freedom of information rights. It occurs in all parts of the globe and if there is one thing every country has in common it is Internet censorship on grounds of copyright violation. We are talking about torrent websites, YouTube videos uploaded without proper permission, unlawful file sharing websites – you know the drill.
The United Kingdom and USA have one of the most widespread, and strict legislation on Internet copyright violation. Leading UK Internet service providers are reported to have privately agreed to restrict access to websites when presented with court orders. The new UK Economy Digital Bill lowers the threshold of criminality of online copyright infringement while rising penalties.
The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a worldwide known copyright law. It contains specific procedural steps that a company which receives an infringement notice must do to receive their “safe harbor” – protection from liability for hosting unlawful user content. But the scope and definitions of the legislation are often criticized for being to broad. This way the USA can use its legislation for state censorship of the Internet. Check what Adolf thinks about it:
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