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The Internet is often idealized as a bastion of information freedom, but not everyone has the same ideal.

One of the most pernicious things that keeps the Internet from reaching its ideal open, democratic state is state-sponsored censorship. And although denizens of the world are learning more about censorship and learning new ways to counteract it, the outlook for the future of Internet freedom isn’t looking good.

Censorship Is Everywhere

When most people think of Internet censorship, they think about political dictatorships and hardline Middle Eastern countries.

China, Russia, and Iran are often discussed as countries that lack sufficient information freedoms, and Turkey’s been in the news over the past few months for its policies on social media (it even inspired the creation of Streisand, the anti-censorship server How You Can Fight Internet Censorship With Streisand Secure Server How You Can Fight Internet Censorship With Streisand Secure Server Read More that we covered recently).

chinese-flag-keyboard

But censorship is much more prevalent than you might think. A quick look at the world map of censorship The World Map of Internet Censorship The World Map of Internet Censorship Don't take Internet freedom for granted. Read More that we posted earlier this year shows that many countries around the world restrict things like torrents, pornography, and social media. Jillian York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, pointed out to MakeUseOf that:

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China and Iran are actually outliers in that their censorship is more overt and sophisticated than most countries’. Meanwhile, countries like Jordan have enacted measures such as requiring media websites to get licensed or risk getting blocked (at current count, more than 300 websites are blocked as a result of this law, and getting a license isn’t a straightforward procedure).

She also mentioned that many countries, instead of engaging in overt censorship, are resorting to legislative blocks on certain types of content; both France and Australia have recently put laws into effect that effectively allow them to censor certain websites.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that governments will slow down their push to restrict Internet freedoms. Carly Nyst, the Legal Director of Privacy International, pointed out to MakeUseOf that both governments and companies are realizing the value of information that’s out there, and the value of controlling it.

With the increasingly common characterization of the Internet as a battlefield (such as in Barack Obama’s recent address to the UN), governments are likely to seek increased control of cyberspace.

The Invisibility of Censorship

Unfortunately, the progression of censorship technology only fuels the spread of censorship. New technologies are giving governments the ability to more selectively censor online materials.

For example, it’s now possible to censor individual web pages instead of entire domains. York points out that abilities like this make it easier to keep censorship invisible. She also pointed out that because of increased awareness of censorship and an unwillingness to risk outrage over the attack on freedom, governments may resort to other methods, like arresting individuals for their speech on social media From The Web To Jail: 6 Types of Computer Crimes You Can Get Arrested For From The Web To Jail: 6 Types of Computer Crimes You Can Get Arrested For Governments across the world have tried to tame the Internet as a tempest of new technology threatens everything from strict government censorship and control over the media to entrenched media conglomerates and old concepts of... Read More or increasing surveillance.

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Nyst agrees: “surveillance and censorship are two sides of the same coin,” she says, and both work together to restrict Internet freedoms.

While it’s easy to talk about censorship and surveillance separately, they’re much more difficult to disentangle in real life. It’s long been acknowledged that information is power—and by using surveillance to increase the amount of knowledge gathered in conjunction with censorship to limit the amount of information available to others, governments are hoarding power.

This is similar to something that Cory Doctorow said at the Don’t Spy on Us event Lessons Learned From Don't Spy On Us: Your Guide To Internet Privacy Lessons Learned From Don't Spy On Us: Your Guide To Internet Privacy Read More earlier this year about secrecy and transparency. Secrecy, he said, increases the power differential between a government and the people, and transparency decreases it. Secret surveillance and censorship obviously contributes to an increased power differential.

Censorship is hard to see, but by taking steps to fight it and educating Internets users around the world, it’s possible to make a stand for freedom.

Fighting Back

With governments’ increased awareness of the value of controlling information, the increasingly invisible nature of censorship, and serious repercussions for taking visible action against censorship, the future of Internet freedom looks bleak. There will likely be an increase in censorship technologies and a crackdown on people and organizations that oppose them.

man-mouth-duct-tape

However, that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.

Jillian York recommends looking up local digital rights groups and volunteering your time, making donations, and even supporting their efforts by sharing their social media posts. Any sort of support makes a difference.

Carly Nyst recommends a more political approach, calling for stronger legal protections and holding governments to them, opposing the export of censorship technologies, and calling on the UN to make stronger statements about the importance of Internet freedoms.

And, of course, there are the things that we’ve talked about before that you can do to make a difference on the ground. Use anonymizing services like Tor to get past censorship in your country, set up Streisand servers for users in other countries, and use these various methods to bypass different types of censoring technologies How To Bypass Internet Censorship How To Bypass Internet Censorship This article examines some of the most common methods used to filter content as well as emerging trends. Read More . Use VPNs and other secure systems to help fight surveillance systems.

Internet censorship is a scary thing, and it’s only likely to get scarier. But by making use of the technologies that are available to you and supporting the organizations that are taking action on an international level, you can make a difference.

Image credits: Censored freedom (edited) via ShutterstockComputer keyboard the Chinese flag on it, Internet in China via ShutterstockMonochrome closeup of handcuffed hands at the back. via ShutterstockMan with mouth covered by masking tape via Shutterstock.

  1. Maryon Jeane
    November 7, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    The trouble lies in your question, Aeschmann: the "we" is too wide; "we" embraces not only the people but also the State itself; not only the guys in armbands and boots or sneakers and jeans but also "the people responsible enough to enjoy total freedom". How do we legislate to encompass them all, or refrain from legislation when they all co-exist?

    It's not a new problem, is it? It's an old problem on a new platform.

    There isn't an answer, but there are some answers: those already found. So, for example, we don't prosecute those guys who"just want to watch porn in peace" unless their particular brand of porn means that children and/or their rights are being violated, and then there are existing - and accepted - laws for dealing with this behaviour.

    What we need to do is be ever-vigilant against the introduction of new and previously unaccepted restrictions founded on the basis of the virtual world being something so extraordinarily different hat it needs extraordinary legislation.

    • Dann Albright
      November 10, 2014 at 7:28 pm

      This is a really good point, and I'm glad you brought it up. I do think that there are some significant differences between situations we've dealt with in the past and the one we're in now; the internet, as I mentioned above, has changed human interaction (in my opinion, not always for the better), and that might require some new ways of dealing with problems.

      That being said, I agree that passing "extraordinary" legislation is often allowed by people who are convinced that we're in an extraordinary time, or circumstance, or whatever. Really interesting to think about. Thanks for chiming in!

  2. aeschmann
    November 6, 2014 at 10:45 am

    Dann, allow me to explain plainly what i did meant.
    Online/real are intermingled.
    The online environment cannot exist without the real world (which include the political).
    What i meant is simple, we all have to censor ourselves, not to wait or allow that the political shape our life.
    We created the society, the political, not the political created us, the "us" who we are.
    We are the creators of everything is societal, political, online.
    Of course, education, logic, common sense are key.
    Like obeying the laws, means we obey to what we created, until, democratically we change, we reshape, refurbish our own creation.
    As nothing is forever, the online environment is a dynamic ecosystem, and all of us are active players.
    If censorship/freedom exist, exist because we do/do nothing in order to have/have not.
    Schroedinger cat in the box issue.
    We all are yearning and strive for freedom.
    The question resides in the fact that if we are educated, using logic and common sense, obeying the rules we created, in the end, responsible enough to enjoy total freedom.
    So, are we?

    • Dann Albright
      November 10, 2014 at 7:26 pm

      You're getting into some deep issues here! Your comment is very interesting, and I do agree with some things in it. For example, it seems like you're saying that if we behave in a rational, democratic way, an equilibrium will establish itself in our interactions. I think that's an interesting idea, and that it definitely works that way in face-to-face interactions. But online interactions have really changed how people treat each other, and the laws of common sense and common decency are routinely ignored, making it difficult to create an equilibrium in which we govern ourselves online.

      Unfortunately, it seems to me like we're often NOT responsible enough to enjoy total freedom. However, censorship as it exists today doesn't seem like a good solution to the problem. Would you agree?

  3. Aeschmann
    November 6, 2014 at 12:25 am

    Censorship, Freedom, nice words, both describe a relative situation.
    Extreme censorship leads (among and along other things) to dictatorship, extreme freedom leads to plain anarchy, because people usually, and the society in itself have no balance, they tend to fall in one (or another) category.
    In theory, nobody (in a democratic system) have to fight censorship, just must watch that the democratic rules are enforced, not infringed, simple as that.
    Most of the time, people confound their privacy (or the lack of it) with censorship.
    Dear people, use common sense and responsibility in your own actions.
    As long you put yourself "on the walls" of internet, please, do not complain about lack of privacy.
    As long you do not tend to cross the thin red line of the law, do not be scared about censorship.
    Is like, as example, you protect your computers against malicious software of any kind.
    Using common sense, a bit of knowledge, being informed is the key.
    Otherwise is like you go to a 500 persons party, get dead drunk, then wake up in the morning asking yourself about what happened after 2:00 am, the hour when you have lost track of your memories.

    • Dann Albright
      November 6, 2014 at 9:12 am

      Aeschmann, I would agree that total freedom can result in some chaos, but I think this is more true of the political world than the online one. Do you think that a complete lack of censorship online is undesirable?

  4. KT
    November 1, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    George Carlin said it best: "When fascism comes to America, it won't be wearing arm bands and boots. It will be wearing sneakers and jeans. And the people won't fight it, they'll demand it." What that means to me is early indoctrination and constant controlled media bombardment leads to complacency. That creates a society that just gets used to censorship and loss of liberty.

    • Howard Pearce
      November 1, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      I've heard that before ..... cool comment that is most likely true.

    • Dann Albright
      November 1, 2014 at 4:56 pm

      If widespread censorship is ever widely accepted in the States, you're probably right that it will come about because of early indoctrination and the media. That's why we write articles like this—so people get an idea of the issues out there and can look further into them or speak out against them if they feel so moved.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • KT
      November 2, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      That's why MUO is high on my bookmarked sites. I love the tech and policy articles. Keep up the good work.

    • Dann Albright
      November 6, 2014 at 9:04 am

      Thanks, KT! Glad to hear that our policy-related articles are appreciated. I really enjoy writing them, so it's good to know that they're getting read!

  5. David Hopkinson
    October 31, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    It is difficult to distinguish between a true threat and an attempt to intimidate, which, if successful, will do the same thing. For example, it has been said by those who represent government that use of Tor will be assumed equivalent to intent to break the law in some way, and a need to conceal that. Those who recommend using Tor suggest using it in conjunction with a VPN, in order to conceal that it is being used. Real threat? intimidation? "Surreal threats", creation of fear by government, in order to accomplish what may not actually be possible, is the intent to create paranoia, ostensibly among "bad guys", by eroding trust among citizens who merely want the privacy which is their right.

    • Dann Albright
      November 1, 2014 at 4:54 pm

      So which do you think the threat of censorship is? A threat? An attempt to intimidate? A surreal threat? Are you saying that it's something we should worry about, or something that we won't have to?

  6. SomeDude
    October 31, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    You know what, I think, this article is written, becuase some guys just want to watch porn in peace.

  7. Gerry
    October 30, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    The headline says things are looking bad for internet censorship, while the article says things are looking bad for internet freedom.

    • Dann Albright
      November 1, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      As Ms. Nyst points out, censorship, surveillance, and other intrusions on internet freedom are all related. I think that's a true statement—if the internet is widely censored, it's not going to be very free. Would you agree?

    • A41202813GMAIL
      November 2, 2014 at 3:57 am

      @Gerry

      Yeah, The Title Is Reversed.

      The Word Censorship Should Be Replaced By The Word Freedom.

      Cheers.

  8. Howard Pearce
    October 30, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    The problem with Makeuseof's continued harping on censorship is that they overlook other violations of freedom of the press . Most notably the mandate by the state as to what people have to print in addition to mandates on what not to print (censorship).

    In particular makuesof's past support for Net Neutrality which mandates that ISP's "print" all sites shows their lack of understanding that any state mandate on what or how to print (or not to print) is a violation. The stance against censorship but for state mandated printing is a typical sign of false/fake left-wing "liberals" who also support "economic" press violations such as product labeling laws where the state is now using those labels to push a certain view (this product requires you jog X miles to burn off X calories).

    • Victor
      November 1, 2014 at 8:22 am

      But MUO is mainly an internet and technology magazine. Sure, some information on print censorship would be nice, but within the scope of this article, it's fine for MUO to "harp" over the issue of net neutrality and internet censorship.

    • Howard Pearce
      November 1, 2014 at 2:47 pm

      Technically , yes.

      But people who don't support the general concept of no state interference into what or what is not printed/communicated will ultimately give up control of the internet to the state where censorship will take place regardless of what MUO claims to support.

    • Dann Albright
      November 1, 2014 at 4:52 pm

      Howard, I'm not really sure how to interpret your final comment here. Are you saying that people who don't support absolute, complete freedom of the press/internet aren't doing enough to fight censorship? And if so, do you think that my article supports government censorship or state interference? I'm not sure if that's what you're saying, but if it is, I'd love to know why you think it says that, as that was not at all what I was going for here. And I really don't understand the relationship between this article and health information printed on products. So if you could enlighten me a bit, I'd love to continue the conversation with you!

    • Howard Pearce
      November 2, 2014 at 3:06 pm

      Absolutely, just as people who only partially support doing away with slavery can't be counted on then neither can those who offer only partial support for freedom of the press/communication.

      Once let in the door, the state will finish the job on it's own regardless of future claims by MUO that "oh, we didn't mean for the state to use the power we gave it that way".

      The issue then becomes which view of freedom of the press should people accept as representing MUO's position ... the part that decides to promote violations because it sees the claims by Net Neutrality as good for it ; or the part that claims it is opposed to censorship.

    • Howard Pearce
      November 2, 2014 at 9:09 pm

      Dann, the part on state mandated printing on product labels versus state mandated printing in newspapers is merely to show that both are state mandated printing ... the perceived goals of the mandates should never over-ride that actual right.

      This is why many "liberals" only claim to support freedom of "socially relevant" press. But this leaves open the question of what is socially relevant and who is going to determine that.

      I know who ...... the state will.

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