This week we’re rallying around something you can’t necessarily see or feel, and something you definitely can’t taste, but it’s absolutely something you can’t live without. This juggernaut is called the internet, and every March 12 we pause to reflect on our digital rights.
World Day Against Cyber-Censorship was started by the team at Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit that safeguards the right to freedom of information. They gave rise to this online event as a way to celebrate free expression on the internet. Depending on your location, the idea of “free expression on the internet” may seem like either a birthright and not something you think much about or a challenging problem you struggle against every day.
But what is censorship, anyway?
Censorship is nothing new — it’s the suppression of information by a government, school, private institution, or corporation. But internet censorship is still the wild, wild west because no one quite knows how far it will go, or how bad it will get.
There’s certainly no global consensus about how to maintain transparency online but that’s because the reality is, not all nations are created equal. Many countries face censorship or other assaults on their digital rights — one study by Freedom House, a think tank and research nonprofit, found that 26 out of 65 countries assessed in 2019 experienced a deterioration in internet freedom.
Since 2010, Reporters Without Borders has also published an “Enemies of the Internet” list (more on that below) and awarded a Netizen Prize to recognize a cyber-dissident who has contributed to promoting free expression on the internet. The winners tend to be bloggers and individuals hailing from countries with the least press freedoms (Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Eritrea, China, Vietnam, Sudan, Syria, Djibouti, Laos, and Cuba).
Think about the fact that more than seventy percent of imprisoned journalists were arrested for activities conducted on the internet.
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Seven out of 10 imprisoned reporters were arrested for their online activities! The question then becomes how the average person’s internet activities are being censored and/or otherwise monitored, and the steps necessary to stay safe online.
Some say internet censorship is a good thing — primarily it’s praised for stopping the spread of so-called “fake news” and limiting access to harmful activities. But who gets to decide what is acceptable or unacceptable? After all, many governments censor online material to block political information and control its citizens.
As a response, some current forms of internet censorship are making the Dark Web go commercial! The BBC, ProPublica, Facebook, the Guardian, and the New Yorker are just some outlets that have launched sites to make their news available in countries where media is restricted. These special websites do not track cookies or keep logs.
Governments often use censorship for political purposes—if there is a lack of information sharing in society, then it is easier to manipulate outcomes. In order to circumvent these barriers, journalists and news outlets have begun to normalize the use of the dark web to reach populations traditionally barred from knowing the truth. This solidifies the idea that the dark web is indeed going commercial.
Some of the countries cited by the Georgetown study seem like no-brainers (think: China, Syria, North Korea) but did you know that the United Kingdom and United States are also among the countries with the highest level of internet censorship and surveillance? Yes, that’s right, since 2014 and with no sign of moving off its list, the U.S. and U.K. are there alongside others like Cuba, Vietnam, Bahrain, and Turkmenistan!
When Reporters Without Borders initially added the two countries to its Enemies of the Internet list, it cited “intolerable” mass surveillance methods while asking “how will so-called democratic countries be able to press for the protection of journalists if they adopt the very practices they are criticizing authoritarian regimes for?”
Both the United Kingdom and United States are also part of something called the “Five Eyes” alliance, working with intelligence agencies from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Some privacy advocates think the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering methods violate online privacy rights because too much data is collected. For example, if Australia has information about a person, that information is accessible to the other four countries (and possibly even more countries).
The trouble with online censors
Censorship is a tricky business. For example, Internet Service Provider filtering in the United Kingdom means internet users there are prohibited from accessing a range of websites by default, including topics such as sex education, advice on sexual health, support services for rape and domestic abuse, and addiction and recovery services. As one researcher told the Independent, “sometimes these are American companies that have slightly different cultural values to us,” but significant underblocking has also been reported (hello #NSFW).
Across the pond, while the U.S. government doesn’t censor online content, it does abide by the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, among other inalienable rights.
As the free speech experts from EFF point out, “for every high-profile case of despicable content being taken down, there are many, many more stories of people in marginalized communities who are targets of persecution and violence. The powerless struggle to be heard in the first place; social media can and should help change that reality, not reinforce it.”
But what about social media from, say, China? Consider that wildly popular app TikTok has 1.3 billion users around the world. TikTok is a China-owned company and as such, has been accused of censorship. Try searching for #hongkong on the platform and instead of seeing political news, TikTok users find “playful selfies, food photos and singalongs, with barely a hint of unrest in sight.”
From a “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” point of view, consider that the average TikTok user is part of the highly impressionable age range of 13-24.
The Washington Post quotes Rohan Midha, managing director of U.K.-based marketing firm PYMB, who calls TikTok “a massively untapped platform that organizations can use to change the perceptions of a massive audience [and] users are quite young, so you can reach a young demographic who it might be easier to shape their perceptions outright.”
Delete, ignore, delete, ignore
Surely there are other social media outlets besides TikTok shaping the younger generation’s perceptions without censoring the digital flow of content, right?
Unfortunately, the complicated internet censorship issues we face are not just something affecting state-run countries that can’t deviate from socialist core values. Have you ever asked yourself what stays online and what gets deleted on various social media channels, including Facebook or Google?
If you haven’t, maybe you should. When we think about World Day Against Cyber Censorship, we must ask who it is that’s controlling what we see online.
Let’s take a deeper look at the top-five most-downloaded apps of 2019:
- Facebook Messenger
- WhatsApp Messenger
Notice anything interesting? One of those things is not like the other — specifically, China-owned TikTok is the only app not owned by Facebook.
Oh, good, you think? Not so fast. In case you haven’t watched it, the Sundance-favorite documentary The Cleaners is a powerful and disturbing look at how tech giants hire third-party companies to remove “objectionable” content. The moderators who are outsourced by these tech giants are the gatekeepers who choose whether to “delete or ignore” so-called objectionable pictures or videos. For example, the documentary showcases, albeit anonymously, the Manila-based Facebook screeners who are the digital janitors who ignore or delete about 25,000 posts a day.
The LA Times said this award-winning documentary was “disturbing on several levels,” while Variety called it “a thorough record of how our obsessive online culture has sunk to the low point it’s at today. Don’t expect any idea how to claw back out.”
As the film warns, the danger is that we might lose democracy because we’re willing to give it up.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so shocking we’re witnessing a decline in internet freedoms when you realize most Americans would give up their privacy for less than the cost of a grande Starbucks. One study shows that GDPR-savvy, privacy-conscious Germans would want to be paid about $8 per month in exchange for having Facebook share their personal information and ad preferences, whereas Americans would be satisfied with $3.50/month for the release of that same personal information.
Given the importance of data in the digital economy and the amount of data people share, that’s an alarmingly low number.
Protect your digital freedom
People are looking for alternatives and ways to be able to surf safely and anonymously. This is why millions of people around the world are taking matters into their own hands and using a virtual private network to get around online censorship. A VPN like CyberGhost masks Internet traffic and hides your IP address, making it impossible to be tracked online. Romania-based CyberGhost abides by a strict “no logs” policy and has no legal obligations under global intelligence agreements around the world.
What’s the future for freedom of expression in our digital age and how can you take action?
Here are some steps you can take to stay in control:
- Use a VPN. A VPN is good for many things but when it comes to avoiding censors, a VPN will hide your IP address, effectively making it impossible for governments and advertisers to track you online. Hiding your IP address provides you with total online anonymity and a chance to experience true online freedom.
- Clear your browser history. Even with a VPN hiding your IP address, it’s still recommended to clear your browser history so there’s no log of your internet activity.
- Use HTTPS, not HTTP. Be vigilant about using encrypted websites, both on public networks and at home. This means you want to stay away from any website that starts with “http://” — it means there is no encryption. In fact, using CyberGhost as your VPN will force all your web traffic to HTTPS pages when available.
- Avoid “free” wireless hotspots. Never conduct or send sensitive data on public WiFi — including passwords, social media profiles, bank account numbers, or other sensitive information.
- Consider a different search engine. Let me Google that for you: DuckDuckGo; Bitclave; Gibiru; and StartPage are some great search engines that do not track or store a user’s personal information. (Unlike Google, which knows a lot about you!)
The fight for digital freedom of expression and limiting censors’ influence in our lives is more essential than ever.