You may not think much of it, but digital censorship is impacting your life every day.
While the focus is often on China, its Great Firewall, and its Social Credit System, it’s not all about these staples of government overreach.
Countries like America, Russia, the UK, Turkey, Hungary, and South Korea also have a tight grip on the digital world and practice censorship.
Let’s see how it all started and what they’re trying to block.
The pursuit of transparency
It all started with James Madison, Jr.
While our American Ghosties are familiar with the name, here’s a recap for anyone else.
James Madison Jr. was born on the 16th of March 1751 at the Belle Groove Plantation in Virginia. As the eldest of twelve children, he inherited the plantation upon his father’s death.
Now, as tradition back then had it, he was to take over the plantation and continue his father’s work as a tobacco planter.
But he had other ambitions. Sharp and curious, he became quite the educated young man. He especially took an interest in political philosophy and embraced the liberalism of the Enlightenment.
He would then advance what is now known as the right to the pursuit of happiness.
During the 1st Congress, he took the lead in pressing for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to a peaceful assembly.
His vision as a founding father would later give him the title of Father of the Constitution. He was mostly responsible for proposals that guarantee freedom of the press and government transparency.
James Madison Jr. believed that a government should keep no secrets from the people it serves and that the people have the right to obtain information on what the government has on them.
But how are governments around the world upholding these values today?
Getting the internet under control
The internet was meant to be an open tool for communication, research, and news, spreading information at an unprecedented rate.
People were excited at the prospect of revolutionizing education, journalism, and many science fields. And the advancements it brought are undeniable.
Social and political activists saw it as a new platform to spread awareness on their plights. Unimpeded by having their lines tapped or their correspondence read, their messages spread without resorting to secret codes.
But their happiness was short-lived. Well, in internet years, at least.
Those in power can easily control what’s on national TV. The same goes for the radio. And businesses operating in a country can see some of their products banned. From books to T-shirts or even food, everything goes.
But the internet was a wild place, that didn’t fall under specific jurisdiction. It’s was harder to control what a person does online as opposed to real life. But the authorities caught up.
This led to the development of digital censorship tools and methods.
In the beginning, they were clunky and expensive. But today, they’re la pièce de résistance of any self-respecting authoritarian regime. Democratic countries also use them to block harmful or otherwise illegal content, like illicit drug markets. And some have also abused these systems.
The many shades of censorship
Censorship is prevalent, albeit in different forms.
Let’s take a look at their rationale.
This is the removal of obscene or morally questionable materials. One classic example is adult content.
This one falls under the threats to the national security category, and it refers to confidential military intelligence. Censoring them means keeping them away from the enemy, who can engage in counterespionage.
Political censorship happens when governments hold back information from their citizens, and it’s a real slippery slope. It’s a way of controlling the population and preventing free speech.
This occurs when any material considered objectionable by a religion is removed. It can often involve a dominant belief limiting minorities.
Welcome to another fight for power.
Publicists and PR people can intervene to disrupt the media from publishing information that puts their clients in a bad light. Or they may be after preventing their competition from getting exposure.
As you can tell, most censorship implies subjectivism. And authorities can often have their agenda when it comes to suppressing stuff.
Let’s see some examples.
United States of America
For starters, the US has quite a history of banning books. During the Cold War, books that positively portrayed anarchism, socialism, or communism had been banned. One example is The Communist Manifesto.
Even as recently as 2018, the media covered the book Fear: Trump in the White House as an alleged propaganda piece. Public libraries in Virginia also refused to shelf it.
And let’s not forget that the Federal Government of the United States filed a lawsuit against Edward Snowden for allegedly violating prepublication obligations related to his memoir Permanent Record. Many regarded this as a form of ostracization, that impeded Snowden’s freedom of expression.
Texts were targeted as well.
For example, in 2007, Verizon attempted to block the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America from using their text messaging service. They did it to enforce a policy that doesn’t allow customers to use the service to send “unsavory messages.” A Verizon spokesman said the topic had been on their backlist for some time. However, many NARAL supporters felt this was a political stance against the pro-choice movement.
The debate around online censorship in the US started during the Bush administration. For eight years, the authorities tried to censor results on climate change research. Critics labeled this as an attempt to undermine the Democratic Party and its policies.
More recently, right-wing commentators have claimed discrimination after being banned on social media platforms for their political beliefs.
This caused a backlash, which prompted the White House under the Trump administration to launch a tool that would allow users to report censorship on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube.
Not to mention that the Trump administration has strategically tried to restrict press access to the White House for a long time now. That’s not in the spirit of government transparency.
The Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, Roskomnadzor, for short, was formed to prevent citizens from accessing so-called extremist content. This included materials covering drug abuse and production, abusive adult content, and descriptions of suicide.
But since 2012, Roskomnadzor has dramatically expanded its blacklist.
Among other things, the authorities would now block content that violated “the established order.” The wording is so vague that it could include a lot of things.
This is how the popular, secure messaging app, Telegram, was blocked. The ruling was based on the “anti-terror laws” signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2016. In the fight against terrorism, all telecommunications operators must store their customers’ phone calls and text messages for six months. Telegram, however, refused to comply.
But many felt that the ban was a political statement, seeing how the app had previously been used in organizing mass working-class protests.
The war in Ukraine was also a significant factor that led to online censorship. Interviews with the Ukrainian ultranationalist group leaders were blocked, and openly supporting Crimean Tatars was banned.
In 2016, a new draft law titled “On an Autonomous Internet System” was proposed. The bill calls for placing the domains .ru and .рф under government control. It would also require a state surveillance system, called SORM, to ensure that no undesirable content slips through the cracks.
A year later, a new bill called for a ban on VPN and proxy services and all other anonymizing tools.
What’s also worrying is that Russian officials openly collaborate with Chinese Great Firewall experts to establish an autonomous Russian intranet.
Another country that wants to as much of a grip as possible on the internet is the UK.
Up until now, the authorities have regulated areas such as:
- hate speech
- incitement to hatred
- child protection laws
- verbal abuse
- drug use
- curse words
- racial slurs
- Japanese cartoons
- adult fiction
- malicious communication
The legislation aims at protecting children in the online world.
But, in their quest for creating a safer digital space for all, regulators often inadvertently censored content.
In the UK, internet service providers use adult content site filters that are often keyword-based. As a result, they can also block educational websites. Even the Edinburgh Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre’s website was deemed pornographic.
The British government also expressed concern for websites that encouraged vulnerable teenagers to commit suicide. Officials decreed that content tied to suicide is harmful and needs to be blocked to make the internet more family-friendly. Ironically, this also targeted suicide-prevention websites.
Starting 2020, Ofcom has been officially put in charge as the internet regulator, threatening fines and even prison time for executives of internet firms if they fail to protect users from harmful or illegal content. Many fear the repercussions of these new regulations as they pave the way for having controversial opinions censored.
Political freedom in Turkey is steadily declining as the country heads towards authoritarianism.
Since the Justice and Development Party’s (APK) rise to power, the government has been gradually expanding its control over all media.
It’s no secret that Turkey has waged war on journalists, routinely persecuting those who dare to report on the corruption and abuse of power within the party. Officials can do so under defamation pretexts.
To understand a bit more about how this works, let’s look at Turkey’s past.
Kemal Atatürk was a Turkish revolutionary statesman that founded the Republic of Turkey. Under his leadership, the country underwent many progressive reforms, which turned it into a modern nation.
He is such an influential figure in Turkish figure that the country has laws to protect his memory. Criticism against him is illegal. By extension, criticism against the state or the ruling party is viewed as criticism against Atatürk’s vision and policies.
You see how this can go wrong.
If reporting about state affairs or state officials in a negative light is illegal, it is reasonable to assume that freedom speech is under attack in Turkey. And this is painfully obvious when you see that journalists are frequently imprisoned, harassed, and convicted.
Back in 2007, Turkish courts imposed a ban on YouTube due to a speculative video that insulted Kemal Atatürk. The ban lasted for 30 months since YouTube refused to take legal against the video’s uploader, as it didn’t violate their terms of service in any way.
Similarly, Turkish ISPs blocked access to Wikipedia on moral accounts, as the site features articles on human anatomy and reproduction. Despite being educational, such subjects are considered obscene in Turkey.
The government’s Media Authority has the power to collect detailed information about journalists as well as advertising and editorial content. This is quite a scary notion.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s administration has been using fines, taxes, and licensing procedures to pressure media publishers into self-censorship. Private news outlets have also been “donated” to a company held by people who have close ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
In 2019, the Hungarian parliament passed legislation gaining more control over cultural activities across the country. Critics have expressed concern with these new laws, fearing they could allow propaganda to sweep into the liberal arts. And it’s a valid reaction, since the government has previously limited the freedom of the press, instituted anti-immigrant policies, and limited the judiciary’s independence.
As you might expect, journalists are heavily discouraged from covering these topics.
Here’s a little-known fact about the Korean War: South Korea and North Korea signed a ceasefire in 1953, but they never signed a peace treaty. Because of this technicality, the two countries are still at war.
And under the guise of warfare, the South Korean government blocks access to all media that speak positively about the North Korean regime, deeming it political propaganda.
ISPs in South Korea block almost all websites hosted on North Korean domains. There are at least 65 sites that are confirmed to be on this blacklist. It might seem like a small number, but remember that North Korea’s internet infrastructure is limited, to say the least.
Pro-North Korea websites hosted in China, Japan, or the US are also routinely fished out and banned.
But officials might be taking things a bit too far.
In 2007, Democratic Labor Party activist Kim Kang-pil was sentenced to one year in prison for discussing North Korea on the party’s website. Yes, you read that right. Just discussing.
In 2012, South Korean authorities arrested a freedom-of-speech activist, Park Jeong-guen, for retweeting the message “long live Kim Jong Il” from North Korea’s official Twitter account. Park was accused of espionage and promoting propaganda, despite him claiming that his retweet was a joke meant to mock North Korea.
South Korea’s Information and Communications Ethics Committee also has a wide range of topics it bans online. Adult material, gambling, pro-LGBT content, violent video games, and anti-state statements are just a few things the general public can’t access. Search engines are required to verify the age of their users when it comes to some keywords. Users must submit their national identity number as part of age verification.
Critics of such internet regulations have previously compared South Korea’s blocking techniques to that of China.
Prepare for a bleak privacy future
Most often than not, we simply look at the top 10 most censored countries or hear about human rights abuses on the news, and it sounds like something that we could never be confronted with.
But the truth of the matter is that day-to-day censorship is subtle. One web page down, one DNS host not resolved, or one “This video is not available in your country” is inconspicuous. But they show a trend of increased digital censorship, and how easily modern software can stifle freedom of expression.
Surveillance software is also becoming more prevalent, collecting data in bulk and analyzing it to root out potential criminal activities.
And we never know what the future holds.
For example, last year, it was hard to predict that the Russian authorities would completely block ProtonMail. Two years ago, no one would’ve known India was to ban TikTok.
Five years ago, no one could have predicted that the GDPR law would come into effect in Europe. And yet, the Court of Justice of the European Union has requested Google to delist 3,542,255 URLs since.
What is today legal may be a faux pas tomorrow. And you never know how the data the government has on you could be used against you.
It’s best to err on the side of caution.
Protecting your digital rights
While there are limited things you can do to protect your privacy in the public sphere, things are different online.
Between censorship, data mining, and malicious attempts, it’s up to you to make sure that you can surf as privately and as securely as possible.
Here are some tips for you.
- Use a reliable VPN. A VPN service hides your IP address and encrypts your internet traffic, making it harder for third parties to spy on your online activity. But be mindful of free VPNs that sell your data and turn you into the product.
- A good VPN also helps you bypass restrictions and access the web freely.
- Don’t overshare on social media. Posting your private information online is never a good idea since those details can easily fall into the wrong hands.
- Delete your cookies frequently. Clearing your browsing history and your cache helps maintain your online anonymity and gets rid of some trackers.
- Use HTTPS. Stay away from HTTP sites. They lack encryption, so malicious parties can spy on your traffic or steal your data.
- Never open attachments from email addresses that look suspicious. Remember that no reputable service would ever ask for your passwords or credit card information via email.
- Keep your software up to date. Updates might be annoying at times, but security patches are essential for keeping your data safe. Don’t skimp on them.
- Cover your camera. Even Mark Zuckerberg does it.
- Use antivirus software. Malware threats are more common than you think. Regularly scan your system and go for a robust antivirus.
Putting these suggestions into action is a step in the right direction, towards reclaiming the internet as a free and open tool.
So, stay safe and secure and let us know how prevalent censorship is in your country in the comments below!