Distribution of global internet users by country and FOTN status

Online censorship: who are the gatekeepers of our digital lives?

Image credit: FOTN 2016 report

We were promised the internet would create a global commons for truly free speech. Instead, our online lives are increasingly ruled by unaccountable gatekeepers.

What’s wrong with women’s nipples? Or rather, why do some social-media platforms allow men to post topless pictures of themselves, but ban women from doing the same thing?

The answer to this question neatly encapsulates the key issue of online censorship today. We may think of the online world as a global commons, a public space for free expression, but it is increasingly a series of private spaces within which we are given limited permission to act. Our access to each other and to the resources available within these spaces is increasingly being controlled not just by law, but by gatekeepers whose motivations may include political advantage, social control, or simple profit.

For example, the Free The Nipple movement was launched in 2012 to highlight the differing ways in which society expects the bodies of women and men to be portrayed, as part of a campaign focused on “equality, empowerment and the freedom of all human beings”.

When women started posting topless images of themselves using the #freethenipple hashtag on Instagram, their posts were banned for breaching the service’s Community Guidelines. In a 2015 interview with Business Insider, Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram, explained that one reason for this was to meet the content guidelines of Apple’s App Store. One gatekeeper (Instagram) bowed to another (Apple) to control how a campaign for equality was expressed online.

In a sense, this should be no surprise. When Steve Jobs launched the iPhone App Store in 2008, he said that apps would not be allowed to distribute pornography, hog bandwidth, breach user privacy, act maliciously, or otherwise violate rules set by the company. The motivation, Jobs said, was “to get a ton of apps out there”.

This is fair enough in the context of furthering a business’ interests. However, as the web, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, Sina Weibo, Snapchat and more gather billions of users and become prime conduits for our communications, the way they are governed and controlled becomes increasingly important to the functioning of society.

According to estimates by Freedom House, a US watchdog backed by sponsors ranging from the US State Department and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to BAE Systems and Google:

  • 3.2 billion people have access to the internet
  • 67 per cent live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family has been subject to censorship
  • 60 per cent live in countries where ICT users were arrested or imprisoned for posting content on political, social and religious issues
  • 49 per cent live in countries where individuals have been attacked or killed for their online activities since June 2015
  • 47 per cent live in countries where insulting religion online can result in censorship or jail time
  • 33 per cent live in countries where online discussion of LGBT+ issues can be repressed or punished
  • 38 per cent live in countries where social media or messaging apps were blocked over the past year
  • 27 per cent live in countries where users have been arrested for writing, sharing or even liking Facebook posts
  • 38 per cent live under governments that disconnected internet or mobile phone access, often for political reasons.

In other words, the global commons is increasingly strictly policed, and offending its gatekeepers can lead to harsh punishments.

Internet censorship map showing topics worldwide by country

Some online censorship is very broad, cutting users off from the internet for limited periods.

Access Now, a pressure group set up to defend and extend digital rights of users at risk around the world by influencing policy, advocacy, and direct technical support, runs a #keepiton campaign to counter internet shutdowns. It argues that such shutdowns harm everyone, from businesses through to human-rights activists. Its count of the number of shutdowns is rising: Access Now documented 15 in 2015, but 56 in 2016.

India’s Software Freedom Law Centre maintains a website, internetshutdowns.in, that tracks instances of internet shutdowns in India. According to its data, there were 14 such shutdowns in 2015, 31 in 2016, and 47 so far in 2017. Many of the shutdowns were ‘preventive’, imposed in anticipation of a law-and-order issue, with the rest imposed as a reaction to such an issue.

This trend of increasing control over access to the internet doesn’t sit well with the Indian government’s Digital India initiative, announced in 2015 “to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy”.

Some censorship is capricious, focusing on protecting the pride of powerful people.

In July, for example, news agencies in Beijing reported that online searches for Winnie the Pooh, the honey-loving children’s book character, were being blocked as ‘illegal content’, following a spate of unflattering comparisons between the portly bear and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.

Similarly, a Turkish man was given a one-year suspended sentence for creating an image that juxtaposed Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President, with Gollum from Lord of the Rings. An Egyptian student was jailed for three years for posting an image of his country’s President with Mickey Mouse ears on Facebook.

Some censorship is about sustaining political control.

For example, in August the telecoms regulator of the Democratic Republic of Congo wrote to the telco Orange DRC, telling it to slow down access to social media sites, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter, in order to reduce users’ ability to share “abusive messages”. The order was widely seen as a reaction to growing opposition to President Joseph Kabila, who has said he will not step down from government when his term ends in December. Last year, eight other African governments – Chad, Ethiopia, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – ordered similar internet disruptions in response to political events.

China has steadily increased its oversight of the internet and social media in the five years since President Xi Jinping took power, tending to exert particularly strong control when its political situation is changing rapidly, such as during party congresses.

In August, companies that host web servers in China were told to practise shutting down nominated web pages quickly, to deal with what China’s Ministry of Public Security called “the problem of smaller websites illegally disseminating harmful information”. It appears the drill was intended to prepare China’s web hosts for the possibility of increased censorship during the Communist Party’s forthcoming national congress.

China has also cracked down on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent its internet controls and surveillance. Apple recently had to remove a number of VPN apps from its China App Store, because they did not use the Chinese state’s network infrastructure. Earlier in the year, Russia banned the use of VPNs and other anonymising services that allow users to access content it judges to be unlawful.

According to ‘Freedom on the Net 2016’, the most recent report on internet censorship from Freedom House, governments are now censoring a broader range of topics, including LGBT+ issues, digital activism, satire, and political opposition.

The level of control can be pervasive: Azerbeijan’s national domain-name registrar refused to register website domains such as lgbt.az; in Indonesia, a messaging platform was asked to remove gay and lesbian-themed emojis from its service; South Korean regulators asked a website to exercise “restraint” after it linked to an online gay drama; the Turkish government blocked access to popular LGBT+ websites for a number of weeks in 2015.

Some censorship is a function of the collision between old business models and new technology, as seen in the suppression of file-sharing sites or access to VoIP services.

For example, in August some regions of India blocked access to the Wayback Machine because its URL was among a list of ‘pirates’ handed to the Madras High Court by an Indian film distributor trying to protect its copyright. As a result, users also lost access to the internet’s key archive site for legitimate research purposes.

The UK has similarly been influenced by organisations such as the Premier League and the Motion Picture Association of America to block access to sites which help people pirate their content. Try to reach a leading BitTorrent-based file-sharing site from a UK broadband account and you’re likely to be redirected by your internet service provider (ISP) to a web page which explains that access to the site has been blocked by order of the High Court.

Net neutrality also plays a role in the censorship debate: allowing ISPs to prioritise traffic from one source over another is effectively a powerful form of commercial censorship.

The Freedom of the Net report analyses the censorship situation in 65 countries, representing 88 per cent of the world’s internet users. It scores these countries’ ‘internet freedom’ from 0 (the most free) to 100 (the most restricted), based on three broad factors: obstacles to access, such as legal or technical barriers; limits on content, such as filtering and blocking; and violations of user rights, such as privacy, surveillance, and the repercussions of online activity.

Its latest analysis shows that 34 of the countries it surveyed have become less free online between 2015 and 2016. The worst performers were Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador and Libya, which have variously restricted social media platforms, put the entire telecommunications industry under government control, arrested people for their social-media posts, and even seen the murder of a blogger.

On the other hand, 14 countries registered modest improvements in internet freedom, in part due to regulatory changes and in part due to digital activism.

The internet’s pervasive role as bearer of our communications is also causing people to censor themselves.

Social networks such as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have given people positive new ways to find and connect with each other. Yet it has also created pressure, especially among young people, to present an idealised version of their lives, in which the sun is always shining, friends are always smiling, and the food looks great. Such pressure narrows the range of publicly acceptable behaviours – such as the ordinary sadness and confusion of adolescents – with potentially worrying consequences. Indeed, a study released by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health in May this year argued that “social media may be fuelling a mental health crisis” among young people.

The extent to which individuals are surveilled on the internet is also giving people pause. For example, the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, also known as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, became law last November and provides the government with sweeping powers to intercept and collect communications data in bulk. Service providers must retain ‘internet connection records’, that is, a year-long history of the websites that each of their UK users has visited. The full consequences of this have yet to play out in public, but the notion that government can access a list of every website you visit, ‘just in case’, is likely to limit some people’s behaviours.

Russia is taking a related, but perhaps even more pernicious, tack, according to an analysis of a 2014 survey of Russian citizens’ concerns about internet and media usage. The study, carried out by researchers at Ohio State University, found Russians who consume relatively more state-backed media feel the internet is a greater national security threat than those who consume less. This has increased support for online political censorship, and even persuaded some users to censor their own internet usage.

“People report they don’t go to certain websites ‘because the government says it is bad for me’,” says Erik Nisbet, co-author of the study and an associate professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

The vision of the online world as a global commons has been rapidly eroded by realities of its implementation, which has created myriad technical, regulatory and commercial opportunities for gatekeepers to survey and control what we can access online.

Unsurprisingly, a number of technical responses have emerged.

Messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Apple’s Messages are encrypted end to end, protecting users’ conversations from all but the most determined surveillance systems. There are regular calls to ban encryption, or demand that service providers include ‘back doors’ in their platforms to enable government surveillance, but any such back doors would open the services up to hacking (and undermine the providers’ business models) and so are strongly resisted.

On the web, a number of techniques and services have emerged to help users circumvent censorship.

VPNs create an encrypted tunnel between a user and another server, which can enable them to connect securely to servers that can access content that is otherwise unavailable in their own regions.

The Tor Project protects users’ anonymity by routing communications through a globally distributed network of relays run by volunteers. This stops anyone who is watching a user’s internet connection from learning which sites they are visiting, and also prevents the sites they visit from learning their physical location.

Lantern is a service for accessing blocked websites and apps, by encrypting the user’s traffic and then using a variety of techniques to overcome firewalls and censorship strategies, such as dynamically allocated proxy servers. However, it is not a tool for anonymity like Tor.

Psiphon is another tool for overcoming internet censorship, using a combination of technologies such as VPNs, SSH (Secure Shell) and a global network of proxy servers to help users access the open internet, particularly from countries with heavy filtering and controls.

Increasing surveillance has also led to the growth of anonymity networks such as Freenet, a program to enable users to anonymously share files, browse and publish ‘Freesites’, websites that are only available through Freenet, and chat on private forums. Users give up part of their computers’ storage and bandwidth to host Freenet nodes, which hold encrypted data and through which encrypted communications are routed. It’s possible to add another layer of security to the service by only allowing it to connect to Freenet users that you trust.

Ceno is a peer-to-peer-based approach to circumventing censorship, which builds upon Freenet and adds the concept of caching any websites retrieved from the open internet within the Freenet network. This means the site is then available to all Ceno users without them having to make another request to the internet from within a censored zone.

Using any of the techniques discussed above takes a leap of faith – that a service is as secure as its developers believe it is, that other actors in private networks are only interested in their own anonymity rather than who their fellow network members are, and so on.

A lot of censorship is about trust, too – or lack of it: governments don’t trust citizens to act responsibly; politicians don’t trust the electorate’s judgement of their performance; businesses don’t trust their customers’ reactions to unfamiliar situations.

If it is true that knowledge is power, then increasing asymmetry between those who control the flow of information and those who consume it is making us increasingly powerless.

The question at the heart of the censorship debate is therefore: who do we trust – ourselves, or an ever-expanding cohort of unaccountable gatekeepers? 

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