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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 that we covered recently).
But censorship is much more prevalent than you might think. A quick look at the world map of censorship 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:
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 or increasing surveillance.
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 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.
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.
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 . 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 Shutterstock, Computer keyboard the Chinese flag on it, Internet in China via Shutterstock, Monochrome closeup of handcuffed hands at the back. via Shutterstock, Man with mouth covered by masking tape via Shutterstock.