To those in the West, internet censorship is often thought of as something that happens ‘elsewhere’ - China or other despotic authoritarian regimes. But increasingly overbearing government regulations have begun to threaten internet freedoms in the West too.
The pro-democracy think tank Freedom House show the relative internet freedom of countries around the globe with Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey amongst others suffering obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of users’ rights that put them in the ‘not free’ category. Other nations, designated ‘partly free’, include Ukraine, Brazil, India, Mexico and Indonesia. All too few achieve ‘free’: the USA, Canada, parts of Europe, Japan, Australia and South Africa.
Importantly, Freedom House has found that internet freedoms are declining around the world due to increased legislation.
Why control the internet?
The reasons for internet control and surveillance by oppressive governments in authoritarian states are varied, but ultimately come down to maintaining power. Typically, the greater the level of control and surveillance, the greater the following:
It should be added the rationale is often to ‘stop or catch criminals’, but what is deemed criminal in these countries is often loose or broad - including those who oppose the regime.
Usual suspects and double standards
China is renowned for its control of the internet - not allowing websites such as Facebook and Twitter to operate in the country. But Chinese legislation is on the move, and recent years have included changes such as increased censorship requirements, codifying real-name registration requirements for internet companies and obliging them to assist security agencies with investigations.
In 2018, China even moved to ban virtual private networks (VPNs). Why? Because VPNs enable their users to sidestep restrictions on their internet access, by simply connecting to the internet via a server in another, less strictly controlled country.
A range of censorship measures are being taken by other countries, for example Russia, who blocked the messaging app Telegram after the company refused to share encryption keys with the Federal Security Service.
This may come as no surprise to those in the West, who are constantly exposed to the news and propaganda of their own political elite, that vilifies geo-political happenings on moral grounds.
While there is little doubt that states such as Russia have poor human rights records, the Western tightening of internet rules and expanding surveillance smacks of hypocrisy. One man’s ‘protective’ is another man’s ‘suffocation’.
This double standard is reflected in laws such as America’s Patriot Act, which allowed online surveillance of anyone suspected of terrorism, and the UK’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’ (Investigatory Powers Act) which required ISPs to retain users’ history for 12 months, and gave authorities full access without a warrant.
As George Bush passed the Patriot Act, many were reminded of Ben Franklin’s words: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
In 2017, the Italian parliament approved a provision that would require telecommunications operators to retain telephone and internet data for up to six years, and Germany expanded the powers of law enforcement to install ‘State Trojans’ on electronic devices and perform online searches to investigate an extensive range of criminal offences.
And that’s just surveillance.
African countries such as Uganda and Tanzania are blocking access to certain websites including social media and porn sites. In Uganda President Yoweri Museveni announced a ‘social media tax’ of five cents per day that he hoped would put an end to “gossip”, while opponents say its real aim is to silence dissent. Cameroon suffered a 93-day government-sponsored internet blackout, and Ethopia regularly suffers similar shutdowns. Zambia now requires WhatsApp and Facebook group administrators to register with the government — and is threatening to punish users for promoting what it calls “false information” – while Zimbabwe has similar new rules and restrictions.
Most of the Middle East and East Asia are subject to tight internet censorship. In 2017, Saudi Arabia essentially made anti-religious speech illegal, Iran demanded messaging apps operate within the control of authorities, and even Jordan proposed amendments to their Cybercrime Law in September that would prohibit hate speech.
This last example raised concerns that the vaguely defined offence could be used to punish legitimate expression. Ambiguity is one of the key concerns around censorship where ‘hate speech’ might include ‘hating the government’.
And censorship is on the march.
While European powers claim their motivations are different, many countries are introducing similar legislation that critics claim is the thin end of the wedge. What is introduced to ‘fight crime’ and ‘protect citizens’ is not only restricting, but can be used to further infringe on people’s rights and freedoms.
Many fear that new EU regulations (2019) around copyright infringement will reduce user freedoms - including bans on sharing footage of football matches.
As recently as April 2019, Austria proposed a censorship law to ban anonymous online comments. While this is not technically censorship, critics argue that the measure will encourage self-censorship, that it is “little more than an attempt by the government to limit anti-government dissent and criticism”. Opponents say that anonymous speech is free speech.
In Hungary, while the government does not engage in any politically-motivated blocking or filtering of online content, public officials continue to use defamation and libel charges against citizens commenting on social networks and two opposition news outlets closed in April 2018 reduced the pluralism of public voices.
2019 was a busy year for online legislators in the UK as the ‘online harms white paper’ laid out plans to impose a duty of care on sites that allow users to share or discover user-generated content, or interact with each other online, holding them liable for restricting “behaviours which are harmful but not necessarily illegal”. Critics are concerned that it will lead to the government deciding which sites Brits can visit. This was followed by a new law that requires porn sites to get proof of ID from UK residents before use.
Freedom House’s report states that multiple European countries are concerned about ‘the dissemination of disinformation’. But this is an ethical conundrum. Is it freedom of speech? And should freedom of speech have limits? And if so, what are they? And how should they be policed?
Censorship isn’t limited to governments. Many of the large social networks are involved in the difficult territory of policing their platforms. There have been high-profile cases, including the banning of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from YouTube and commentator Milo Yiannopoulos and comedian Kathy Griffin from Twitter. Each raises the question, what is ban-worthy behaviour? And, more importantly, who gets to define it? Joe Rogan’s podcast saw Twitter’s Vijaya Gadde and CEO Jack Dorsey in conversation with journalist Tim Poole, who accused the platform of having a left-wing bias - censoring those who didn’t share their own ideological positions, and allowing equally hateful speech from their peers.
Western countries, and in particular the US, have suffered a wave of ‘de-platforming’ - especially at elite universities. This censorship often comes from privileged left-leaning individuals who rationalise freedom of speech apart from certain people. While this doesn’t directly impact the online world, it does show what people’s feelings are about censorship and how it may be more welcomed that once it was.
Those able to have the debate online should be grateful that they are still able to do so.
It might feel like the fist of government is closing around the throat of internet freedoms, but there are still governments committed to internet freedom.
For the second time in 2017, France struck down a provision that criminalized the regular consultation of websites deemed to incite or glorify terrorism. The UK saw the first “right to be forgotten” judgement as the High Court ordered Google to delist search results referring to a spent criminal conviction of a businessman. While the Canadian government promises to reform elements of the Anti-Terrorism Act, which permits information-sharing across government agencies for a broad range of purposes, Italy announced the launch of an online portal to report ‘fake news’ to the police.
Those in power around the world can clearly see the value and power of censorship, whether for insidious and megalomaniacal reasons or altruistic and philanthropic ones.
For those in the West, it is essential that we don’t assume our freedoms are assured, and that we challenge legislation and its legislators - especially that which is suspiciously positioned as protecting us. If your ability to voice your opposition is removed or punishable, you will know it’s too late.