Live Updates: Online Censorship News

This is an on-going log of events concerning censorship around the globe. We update this page with the latest news regarding online censorship. Share

Regular readers of our blog know that there is no such thing as a one-time censorship event. Governments across the globe are constantly looking for new ways to attack online freedom (as well as other freedoms) and make ‘big businesses’ happier using access to our information as the bait. At vpnMentor, we think it’s important that you get to see the gravity and breadth of these problems. So, here is a run down of all the tricks, moves, and data sales we have learned about so far, starting with the most recent.

July

China Closes in on VPN Censorship Gap

Authorities in China have taken the next step in making circumventing the censorships laws even harder by removing VPN Apps from the China App store. ExpressVPN reported at that of July 29 their iOS app had been removed, along with many other apps from major VPN providers. The only way to access these VPN services within China now is to use a different territory’s App Store. To do this, users must indicate a billing address outside of China. One of the things that makes this move more disturbing is that it indicates Apple’s willingness to side with censorship, rather than freedom of information on the web. Apps designed for other platforms are currently unaffected, but we can only guess how much longer that will remain the case.

Iran Creates Confusion Over Tightening Telegram Censorship

A very public disagreement has broken out in Iran, centring on the messaging app Telegram. The hard line conservatives are continuing to push for further restrictions on the app which they state is used by IS and other terrorist groups to plan attacks, including the attack on the Iranian parliament in Tehran in June. The Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi is against the moves and has been threatened with a lawsuit by the deputy state prosecutor in charge of cyberspace if he does not comply with the orders to block content considered criminal. The disagreement, being played out very publicly, become even more confused when it was reported that Telegram had agreed to move its servers to Iran; a statement that is denied in very strong terms by the CEO of Telegram. This sets the scene for an ongoing disagreement.

Russia Reels from the Hackers Fightback

Russia’s moves to restrict internet freedom through creating a blacklist of sites that ISPs must block has come unstuck due to actions of a group of hackers. Thousands of sites have been banned since Vladimir Putin’s 2012, re-election – most for promoting ‘social ills’ or for supporting political dissention. The hackers fought back this month by purchasing banned sites and inserting information from legal websites into the domain names. The move caused nothing short of chaos as major news sites were blocked, Google became inaccessible and the state banks VTB and Sherbank found that their cash machines were no longer working. Now that the blacklisting system has been shown to be vulnerable, concerns have been raised that the Russian government will retaliate by focusing on intimidation and introducing even harsher rules on what can be viewed on the web. It has already been reported that the blacklist has been replaced with a whitelist of sites that cannot be blocked. Only time will tell how this, and other moves made earlier this month to tighten internet freedoms, will play out.

Russian Restrictions Rise As Bills Are Passed

Earlier this month we reported that the Russian State Duma was rushing through two Bills that would severely restrict internet freedom within the country. Well, this week the bills were passed. The result of this move is that all VPNs, and proxies are now banned and using them is illegal, although providing the software needed for them to work is currently not covered by the law. There has been little information on how the ban will be implemented, and top VPN providers such as NordVPN have vowed to fight the move, and do everything they can to enable their users to continue to access the internet without restrictions. But, it is not just VPNs and proxies that have been hit. Privacy has also been compromised by the Bills. Those who rely on messenger services for private communications, will no longer be able to communicate anonymously. The new law requires all service administrators to establish the identities of all its users via their phone numbers. If that was not chilling enough, the Russian government is working on a system that would allow them to restrict the communications of specific individuals – so not only can they see who is talking, but they can decide on what they can say. And just to solidify their hold over the internet a little more, Russia has also implemented a carbon copy of the German ‘Hate Speech’ law that we also discussed earlier this month. And just as with the German law the definition of hate speech as been left open to be determined as the authorities see fit.

China Catches Up with WhatsApp

It has finally happened; WhatsApp’s free reign in China is over. Up until this month the messaging app had managed to escape the attention of the Chinese officials that have been ramping up their campaign of internet censorship. There has been no official ban or block, but the servers are currently unavailable across much of the country. The lack of servers comes in the wake of the death of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights activist – Liu Xiaobo.

Israel Instigates Internet Crackdown

While not necessarily the most open of countries, Israel is not known for using the law to control the internet as a whole. However, that changed this month when the Knesset approved a law allowing the court-ordered removal or blocking of certain sites. Any site promoting criminal activity or terror related activities is covered by the new law. Now, as in many other instances, where the country creates such bans it is the definition of criminal behavior or terrorism that is the problem. No one is going to argue that child pornography should be removed from any and everywhere. However, the selling or use of Cannabis is a much more open question, which would be covered by the same law.

UK to Start Censoring Sex

Here is another law, that, on the face of it, is for a good reason. Sex may sell, and it may be great fun for consenting adults, but sex and especially pornography is not child friendly. So, a law requiring age verification to be established on all pornography sites seems like a good idea – right? Wrong, what the law being instigated in the UK does in practice is allows the government to block pornography website en-masse and without a court order. Additionally, the law can be used to block any content that does not comply with UK content rules. So, who decides on what is pornography? Another concern for those who enjoy consensual pornography sites, is that the age verification software most likely to be used by the site owners will be credit card authorization. That’s a lot of additional financial information floating in the ether, just waiting for hackers to find it.

Net Neutrality – A Battle Worth Fighting

July 12 was net neutrality day, and this year it certainly did not go unnoticed with both big and small internet companies staging an online protest to preserve net neutrality. The online protest was just one part of a day of action aimed at convincing the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to keep the current net neutrality regulations in place. These regulations ensure that providers treat all content equally and do not give their own services preferential treatment. While a vast array of internet based businesses joined in on the action, some were a little more pro-active than others – and funny enough, the bigger the company, the more subdued the support – I guess some things never change. To learn more about net neutrality and what it might mean for you try this infographic.

Russia Rushing to Remove More Internet Freedoms

The Russian government is not exactly known for its love of internet freedom, but its latest move would stifle what little freedom is left. The two bills, which have already had their first reading, and look likely to be adopted on the second, would ban software used for bypassing blocked websites (in short no more VPNs), censor search engines and bring messaging apps under government control. The move would remove the last vestiges of freedom on the net in Russia, and mean that messaging services would be required to cooperate with Russian mobile phone operators in identifying users – nothing would be sacred or secure. This follows other internet censorship laws that were signed just a few days ago giving the communications ministry the right to block mirror sites without the need for the agreement of a judge. And yes, as you have already guessed, this is all being done in the name of stopping terrorism.

China Creates Further Content Restrictions in Line with Core Values

It seems not a month goes by without China trying to further restrict its citizens’ internet access. Although July only started a week ago, the officials in China have been very busy implementing new restrictions. Among the new rules this month we found that auditors will be checking all audio and visual content being uploaded to ensure that it is in keeping with China’s ‘core socialist values’. Any content from educational videos or cartoons that breaks these values will be edited or banned. Included under this ruling are the following:

  • A halt to all content streaming – at least temporarily while the new rules are enforced
  • A ban on all content showing, or seeming to promote homosexuality – it has been classified as an ‘abnormal sexual behavior.’
  • A ban on all content that discusses drug addiction.Anything relating to nudity or sex, including sex-education videos.
  • Anything showing smoking.
  • Anything that shows luxury lifestyles.
  • Anything that contains or shows criminal processes in detail.
  • Anything containing ‘foul’ language.

On top of this, the department that oversees policing media will start scoring online literature publishing sites. These sites will be marked out of 100 on how well the literature on their site adheres to socialist values. Sites that fall below 60 points are to be criticized publicly and banned from winning awards.

And if that wasn’t enough, China’s most popular VPN has been ordered to cease its operations. GreenVPN has been a life line for citizens, universities, businesses and even state-run newspapers who want to get past the Great Firewall of China. Restricting VPNs was listed as one of the top priorities by China’s Minister of Industry and Information Technology at the beginning of the year, and it looks as if they have started to move through their to-do list.

Paying the Price for Free Speech in Germany

Under a new controversial law passed in Germany, social media companies that fail to remove hate speech can be fined up to $57 million (€50 million). While it seems like a promising idea to prevent the spread of hate and violence, there are numerous problems with such laws. The main issue being who decides on what is hate speech, defamation, or incitement to violence and what is not. The law tries to address this by stating that companies have 24 hours to remove obvious examples, but have up to a week to come to decisions on less clear-cut examples. The problem then is who makes those decisions and on what basis. The move was made after it was decided by the Justice Minister Heiko Mass that social media platforms were not fulfilling their obligations. However, he then stated that a Europe-wide strategy was needed to tackle hate speech and fake news. And here in lays the problem: one person’s fake news is another person’s uncomfortable truth, and the same can be said for freedom of expression and hate speech.

 

June

Canada – Land of the Not So Free

In a move that has come as a bit of a shock, Canada has joined the ranks of those using legal statutes to determine what information individuals should and should not have a right to access, not just within Canada, but world-wide. The highest court in Canada, the Supreme Court, upheld a ruling that allowed a company to force Google to globally de-list specific websites and domains for its search index. The move effectively makes them invisible to anyone looking for them using this search engine. What is so concerning, is not that the court was used to intercede in a Canadian matter, nor that domains were removed from use within Canada, but that the company in question pushed for the world-wide removal of the domains, and this was backed by the court. The implications of this ruling on free speech, should other countries decide to follow suit, and not just in cases of industrial disagreement, do not bear thinking about. For example, if a court in China was to use the same approach to something they said was against Chinese law, such as the existence of YouTube, then they could have that removed world-wide, rather than just in China.

Further Censorship Challenges in China

Earlier this month we reported on moves by the Chinese government to remove entertainment and sports gossip, discussion and updates from the Internet, deeming them against Chinese laws on individual privacy. Now one of the sites that provides such news, but managed to avoid closure, has been hit again. Weibo, better known as the Chinese Twitter was hit with an order from the government to shut down any politically sensitive video or audio content. The company agreed to comply with the order, and the belief among analysts is that the company’s content will barely be affected as its users know not to post such comments anyway. But, how long will it be before the officials return for the rest of Weibo’s content?

India Increases its Hold on Internet Freedom 

India is taking censorship to a whole new level. It has shut down the internet. Over the course of the first five months of 2017, the internet has been shut down in various regions at least twenty times, with four such blackouts occurring in the first half of June. Each of these blackouts took place in an area that experienced recent violent protests. The government is seemingly unwilling to discuss the shutdowns, but in the past stated it was to stop social media from fuelling violence. While it’s not the first time the Indian government has taken such serious steps, shutdowns have significantly increased this year. It comes as no surprise that social media websites, such as Facebook, rank India among the top countries with governments asking for content censorship.

Palestine Ponders the Problems of People Power

Palestinian authorities hit an unexpected wall when they ordered the blocking of numerous websites. Deemed not to be in line with its political orientation, the 22 sites were blocked because they violated the ‘rules of publication’, although no one seems to know exactly what rules these refer to. This sudden block, however, seems to have motivated activists to speak out against it. As well as starting their own hashtag campaign, those opposing the block are calling for people to boycott the ISPs that are complicit in the violation of internet freedoms.

Iran Straddles the Censorship Line 

Iran is not known for its tolerance of Internet freedom, especially since both Twitter and Facebook are banned in the country. However, a ray of hope emerged when  in his bid for re-election  President Hassan Rouhani spoke efforts to protect access to social media platforms in the country. He touted a more moderate tone towards newer social media sites such as Instagram and Telegram than has been seen in the country before. Great, yes? Well, it would have been, except that just after his victory Rouhani’s administration introduced reforms that are probably going to restrict internet access even further. The new controls were brought in under the cover of improved cyber security and in defense of Iran’s national security. What may be more concerning, however, is that Telegram is reportedly working with the government, cooperating with the tighter control of what can and cannot be posted. In the interest of fairness, however, it should be noted that Telegram stated that they are only cooperating to remove content that includes pornography. The government’s program of ‘intelligent refinement’, however, goes much further.

Egypt Widens its Censorship Targets

Egyptian authorities have started targeting VPN providers that were specifically used to bypass the latest wave of blocks on news sites. The news broke not long after the tech community ended its proposal to punish African governments for withholding new IP addresses and effectively shutting down the Internet. The Egyptian government doesn’t see anything wrong with either withholding IP addresses or shutting down news sites, although they refuse to formally acknowledge that sites are being blocked. More worrying is that the system Egyptians use to coerce ISP providers into turning off internet access is being replicated in other countries, including Cameroon and Iraq.

Closing in on Celebrity News in China

China is well known for its no-nonsense approach to the internet, and the potential for freedom that it gives its citizens. However, news that authorities have instigated a new cyber-security law, which resulted in the closure of accounts and blogs covering celebrity news, still came as a shock. More than 80 WeChat accounts were closed under the law that was issued by the highest internet regulator in the country – the Cyberspace Administration of China. The law states that neither organizations nor individuals can conduct any activity on the Internet that violates the reputation, privacy or intellectual property of another individual. This wouldn’t sound quite so bad if it had just been sites peddling falsehoods, vulgarities, and scandals, but among the shut-downs was a popular movie review site. It would seem that entertainment, and even sports, no longer have the relative freedom they once had.

Turkey’s War on Wikipedia

The Turkish government has blocked completely blocked Wikipedia. Yes, you read that right. The website simply does not exist anymore for web users in Turkey. Although only recently reported, the block happened in late April after Wikipedia refused to remove negative references to Turkey’s relationship with militants in Syria and state-sponsored terrorists. But Wikipedia is only the thin edge of the wedge; the Turkish government has blocked an estimated 127,000 sites and a further 95,000 social media accounts, blog posts, and articles. Many of the sites that are banned contain news and information that is considered embarrassing to the government. Students in Turkey are leading the revolt against the ban on Wikipedia, particularly as exam time looms closer, and are using VPNs to aid them in reaching it and other banned sites. Also, it was revealed in June that multiple ‘mirror’ websites have sprung up on the web in Turkey, reproducing the content found on Wikipedia. One way that this has been made possible is by placing Turkish Wikipedia pages on a decentralized peer-to-peer hosting network that does not rely on a domain name system. This makes it very hard for the Turkish government to completely censor it, giving those that want to find the content a way to do so.

 

May 2017

A Bad Month for Al-Jazeer

As well as being banned in Egypt, Al-Jazeer television has been blocked in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The move comes after the Qatar ruler was said to have described Iran as an ‘Islamic power’ and then gone on to criticize the policy of the Trump administration towards Tehran. However, officials from Qatar hold firm to line that their news agency was hacked and that no such comments were ever made by the Emir. Either way, it’s a little more than coincidence that this has occurred within days of Trump’s visit to the region.

Egypt Tightens its Grip on Free Speech

In another wave of crack-downs Egypt has joined the ranks of those using terrorism to ban websites that its ruling powers don’t like. The new ruling saw 21 websites being banned including Al-Jazeer television, which is based in Qatar, long believed by officials to support the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. Other sites named on the list produced by officials included local Egyptian broadcasters and newspapers. However, among those not officially named, but now inaccessible within Egypt the Arabic website of The Huffington Post and Mada, described as a progressive Egyptian news website with no links to Islamist groups or showing any sympathies to their cause. As these sites were not officially named among the 21 now banned (of which only 5 have been officially named) it is possible that this is just a teething problem. However, it is also possible that terror is once again being used as a cover all to limit freedom of speech and access to progressive ideas.

State of Emergency in Venezuela Encompasses Internet Access

After two months of being held in a state of emergency, experiencing anti-government protests, civil unrest and the deaths of over 50 people, the Venezuelan president has sort to curb the violence by increasing web censorship and online surveillance. The move comes as the president’s popularity continues to fall, and censorship of television stations and the harassment and arrest of journalists failed to end the unrest. Online TV stations have been accused, along with local phone companies, of backing and even assisting with the coordination of anti-government protests. To fight back, and continue their right to freedom of expression the Venezuelan people have moved to social media, which is proving much harder for the government to censor. However, in a move to counter act this, the government is also heading to social media with its own message, while increasing surveillance on its citizens.

Blurring the Lines Between Hate Speech and Freedom of Speech

Most right-minded people do not want to see content that encourages, supports or otherwise creates a voice or platform for hate speech, or which goes out of its way to hurt others in anyway. But, it is a sad truth that it exists, and should be reported and removed when found. However, the latest EU directive if enacted could do more than just put an end to hate speech. This directive would lead to greater regulation of video content on social media, which companies like Facebook and Twitter would be forced to adopt. The regulation would provide an EU wide one-size-fits-all approach to the problem, but who decides on the size, and therefore on what constitutes hate speech, as opposed to freedom of speech and a credible threat instead of open debate. The moderation system on these sites is far from perfect, but is this really the answer?

The UK Government Move to Tighten Regulation and Remove More Freedoms

We reported above on an EU directive that was set to regulate video content on social media, under the guise of reducing and removing hate speech. You could be forgiven for thinking that the UK would be free from this worrying turn of events with Brexit looming ever closer. However, Theresa May has other plans and is planning on introducing extensive regulations that would allow the government to decide what is said online. The regulations would place huge restrictions on what could be shared, published and posted online. It would also give the government the power to break messaging apps so that the messages being sent and received could be read. As with so much of the regulation and restriction being imposed online at the moment, this is being achieved under the guise of anti-terrorism legislation. But, what it is achieving isn’t stopping terrorism, but curbing the rights of average, law-abiding (mostly) citizens, which is what the terrorists want, isn’t it?

Where Russia Leads Ukraine Follows

Russia has long been known for its increasingly draconian approach to independent websites and online media. However, in a move that is being wrapped in the colours of increased sanctions against Russia, the Ukrainian president has announced a block on the most popular social media websites and search engines based in Russia. The move is one of a number that also sees the assets of a number of Russian companies being frozen, and their operations being banned within Ukraine. While the president’s line is that this is in response to Russia’s ongoing annexation of the Crimea, censorship experts in the country are concerned that there is much more to the move, and that the rights and online freedoms of the country’s individuals are under attack.

April 2017

Greater Turkish Censorship

It didn’t stop there either. The Turkish government decided to get in on the act and tighter censorship was introduced with more sites being blocked as threats to National Security. But, like the Australians, the Turkish people didn’t take the threat to their online freedom lightly and there was an 89% rise in the sale of VPNs soon after the announcement.

Net Neutrality Laws

Ajit Pai, US FCC chairman made moves to demolish net neutrality laws that have existed since 2015. These laws are intended to prevent telecommunication companies in the US prioritizing traffic by blocking, or at the very least, slowing down competitors’ content.

Australia 1 Net Privacy 0?

The same month also saw the Australian government enact a new set of laws, known as the Federal Government’s Metadata Retention Scheme. Guess what the Australian Government wanted access to? However, it hasn’t been an easy road for the Australian Government to get this scheme enacted and, never a country to take things laying down, privacy rights organisations declared April 13, National get a VPN Day.

ISPs Legally Allowed to Sell Your Data

Not long into the presidency of Donald Trump, we reported how a Bill had been signed in the US that allowed ISPs to sell the browsing histories and geolocation data of their customers. The theory behind the Bill was that it created a level playing field between the likes of Google and Facebook, who are renown for being fast and loose with customer information, and the ISPs whose hands had been legal tied until this point.

December 2016

Rule 41

The ruling went into effect on December 1, 2016, despite last minute efforts to stop it. This is in effect the US version of ‘the snoppers’ charter’ (legislation in the UK that allowed government agencies free reign in spying on the search habits of individuals) allowing multiple computers across the country to be searched under a single warrant. While the reasoning that is being trotted out to support the move gains support with the popular Imagination; after all who doesn’t want to protect their children, it in effect does little to protect. In fact, the surveillance powers and the changes that they will affect in search and seizure procedures are considered by those who oppose the bill, to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

November 2016

The Investigatory Powers Act, UK

This Act was passed in 2016, and as of May 2017, still not everyone knows, or accepts its existence. Dubbed ‘the snoppers’ charter’ it means that Internet users throughout the UK are being tracked and watched by GCHQ, on mass without having committed any unlawful act. And if the government can track you, so can the criminals, and ‘big business’. Meaning that your information is for sale, and the Investigatory Powers Act makes it easier to find and use.

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