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Online Censorship has an Escalating Pattern. Where is Your Country Positioned?

Censorship is not new 

Censorship is not a new occurrence, neither is it an idea that is specific to the World Wide Web.

Information that is counter to the religious or political ideals of a community or country, or is seen as a threat to security, has been removed from the public sphere throughout history.

As far back as 399 BCE, Socrates, a Greek philosopher, defied the attempts of the Greek state to censor his philosophical work. His defiance would lead to his death by poison.

Throughout history, Christians and other religious groups have tried to censor those they saw as heretics, while political leaders have censored history itself by removing the written record of those they saw as less than themselves; a prime example of this type of censorship was the burning of books in Nazi Germany.

The nature of censorship and the freedoms it tries to curtail has changed with the rise of the internet and the World Wide Web.

The simplicity with which information can be accessed, the speed at which news travels, and the difficulties of defining jurisdiction and legal boundaries has made the work of those trying to limit freedom of information much harder. However, that does not mean that they have given up, and in many cases, the powers in charge have increased their efforts and their hold on freedoms.

While censorship has always played a part in human history, there is a sense that the restrictions across the globe are increasing with more and more countries enforcing laws to monitor users’ activity and restrict access.

But, is it really getting worse, or has there always been this level of censorship? Is censorship simply more widely reported in countries with fewer controls? If censorship is increasing, what does that mean for countries just starting to strengthen their internet censorship?

Can small moves to censor content in countries such as the US, UK, and Germany one day lead to the complete blanket censorship we see today in North Korea?

To find answers to these and many other questions it is necessary to look in in more detail at the history of censorship within highly censored countries.

Censorship over time

A history of strict and censored countries

North Korea is so censored, we don't know much about it

Here's what we do know:

Censorship in North Korea ranks among some of the strictest in the world with the Government having full control over all forms of communication within the country and between the country and the outside world.

In fact, in the 2017 Press Freedom Index, North Korea ranked last place. Every media outlet in the country is owned and strictly controlled by the government, with news only accessible from the Korean Central News Agency.

Radio and television sets can only be purchased in North Korea and are sealed so that only the preset channels and frequencies approved by the government are accessible.

In terms of the internet, it is not widely available and only certain high-ranking officials are allowed access to the global internet. Some universities are permitted a small number of computers with internet access, but these are very closely monitored.

Outside of these institutions, the government has created an intranet that is more widely accessible, but even then, only within select institutions, elite grade schools, and factories. However, even the intranet is filtered by the Korea Computer Centre to ensure that only ‘acceptable’ information can be viewed.

How did this censorship come about?

A small history lesson: In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan where it remained until the end of World War II.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, Korea was divided into two zones by the United States and the then Soviet Union.

The North was occupied by the Soviets, and when reunification talks failed in 1948, separate governments were formed and North Korea embraced the socialist ideology of the Soviets.

Tensions grew between North and South Korea, culminating in an invasion of the South by the North, which lead to the Korean War in 1950.

Three years later an agreement brought about the end of hostilities, but no formal peace treaty was signed.

North Korea now considers itself a self-sufficient state that requires nothing from the outside world. It has developed a strong military-first stance and continues to uphold Stalinist style communist ideals.

The country is run along the lines of its ‘Juche Philosophy’ where politics, economics, and social control are combined into one philosophy and are centrally controlled.

Every aspect of life is centrally planned and organized, including what is considered appropriate clothing, hairstyles, and living accommodation. Social control is maintained in several ways by encouraging individuals to watch and report each other, cleverly designed rhetoric and party slogans, and of course, limiting individuals’ access to the outside world.

Korea social media ban

Iran’s religious rule led to censorship

While not quite as strictly controlled in as many aspects, censorship in Iran takes many of the same approaches.

All media is vetted by the Iranian government to ensure that it meets the strict religious ideals that are upheld by the country.

As well as religious censorship, the government uses such measures to curtail attempts at counter-revolution.

Subjects that are banned from discussion on any platform and in any form, include economic discussion – especially related to any economic difficulties the country may be experiencing – sanctions, negotiations with other countries (especially the United States), social taboos, and the arrests of individuals considered political or religious dissidents.

Internet access is much wider than it is in North Korea with an estimated 20 million individuals, however, controls are in place to regulate what can be viewed; websites, social media sites, messaging apps, and anything considered pornographic or anti-religious are regularly blocked, banned, and removed quickly.

How did religion affect Iran's censorship?

To understand censorship in Iran, it is necessary to go back to the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Prior to the revolution, Iran experienced a period of economic growth and good relationships with their neighbors and the rest of the world.

However, there were limits to this, and opposition to Mohammad Reza Shah and his use of the secret police to control the country began to grow.

The country came close to civil war led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who headed the opposition, even though he was living in exile at the time. By smuggling his revolutionary messages on cassette tapes, Khomeini started a full-scale revolution and gained control of Iran in February 1979.

Following a national referendum later in April, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born. One could easily argue that censorship in Iran was also born that day, alongside other regulations such as the restricting dress codes for women.

A period of extreme turbulence followed with demonstrations, the taking of hostages from the US Embassy, and the invasion of Iran by Iraq. There was further upheaval as presidents were removed from power and replaced at the will of Khomeini.

In 1989, Khomeini died of a heart attack, and the position of President jumped from conservative to conservative until Mohammad Khatami assumed the position in 1997. To the dismay of religious conservatives, Khatami founded a movement to oppose further moves to censor the arts, history, and political and religious thought.

At this time, the internet was still a relatively new phenomenon in Iran. It had not yet come under the same strict rules that applied to the printed press, which gave people freedom of information exchange that they had not experienced previously under the Islamic State laws.

However, the 2005 election of the more conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad curtailed these freedoms, particularly when it came to light that those who opposed the regime relied heavily on Web-based communication with the outside world.

Censorship became a form of control – as with North Korea – to build barriers between an insular state and the rest of the world.

Iran’s censorship reaches new levels

As a result of the crackdown on freedom of expression, bloggers, online activists, and technical staff faced jail terms, harassment, and abuse.

While there was no specific or cohesive censorship policy in place for the internet, the government began to take wider scale preventative actions, rather than simply reacting to the actions of individuals and groups.

In 2006, all ISPs were ordered to limit their download speeds to 128bit/s for private individuals and internet cafes, which limited access to Western media.

Simultaneously, there was a growing awareness of content created within the country that was considered undesirable. Reactive censorship grew alongside proactive moves in the lead up to the 2009 elections, and again prior to the 2012 elections.

Both these are times when it was important for the ruling parties to ensure that only their messages were heard clearly by the populous and that the risk of outside influence or interference was reduced.

Blocking social media

From 2011 onwards, efforts to close the net on internet freedoms took a sharp increase. Plans to launch a “halal internet”, which conformed to Islamic values and only provided ‘appropriate’ services, were announced.

The network would be similar to that used by North Korea, Cuba, and Myanmar, and – as a closed system – it would stop unwanted outside information from entering the homes and cyber cafes of Iran.

This came into force as a test in early 2012 (re-election time) and was run alongside new software robots that could analyze emails and chats.

Cyber café owners were also required to check the identity cards of their customers before they could provide them with internet services. This information was recorded – along with the times and dates of their internet usage – and kept for at least 6 months.

This new data tracking fell under the authority of the newly constructed body set up to oversee the internet.

The Supreme Council of Virtual Space consists of the president, culture and information minister, the police, and Revolutionary Guard chiefs. Their task is to define policy and co-ordinate decisions regarding the Internet.

Censorship became so prominent in Iran that politicians used it to gain votes. Prior to the 2013 elections, Hassan Rouhani campaigned for more social media platforms and less censorship. However, following his victory, Rouhani’s administration further restricted internet access under the cover of improved cybersecurity and defense of Iran’s national security.

Even social media platforms, like Telegram, were reported to be working with the government (although they claimed to only remove pornographic content).

Current restrictions in Iran

While there are those who oppose the heavy censorship, it proves harder and harder for them to fight back.

One such example is with Telegram, the messaging app.  While hardline conservatives pushed for further restrictions due to claims that ISIS and terrorist groups used the app to plan attacks, Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi fought against these moves and was consequently threatened with a lawsuit for not complying with orders to block content considered criminal.

The Iranian regime seems to smother any possibility of a less censored country.

With examples like North Korea and Iran, it is easy to spot that censorship is often a response to fear, whether in crisis, times of potential revolution or revolt, or perceived interference from external forces.

Iran and North Korea have been historically closed off to the outside world for either political or religious reasons, but in both countries, increases in censorship occurred when the ruling government or class felt threatened.

This reaction can also be seen in other countries who have historically been more open to the rest of the word, at least to varying degrees. One country that exhibits historic openness but uses modern control through censorship is China.

China's elaborate censorship

When the internet arrived in China in 1994, it was initially welcomed as both an inevitable consequence of and as a supporting tool for their growing socialist market economy.

However, within two years the first regulations set to censor the internet had been passed.

The Temporary Regulation for the Management of Computer Information Network International Connection required that internet service providers were licensed and that all traffic must pass through ChinaNet, GBNet, CERNET, or CSTNET.

The second regulation, the Ordinance for Security Protection of Computer Information Systems, passed soon after, giving responsibility for internet security protection to the Ministry of Public Security.

By 1997, these regulations also defined harmful information and harmful activities in relation to internet usage. This included – but was not limited to – incitement to resist or break the Constitution or laws, incitement to overthrow the government, terrorism, incitement of hatred, and making falsehoods.

However, the first restrictions on content providers did not surface until 2000.

China's firewall blocks social media

This order stopped China-based websites from linking to overseas sites that provided or distributed news. At the same time, government officials were given powers to demand access to any sensitive information they wished to see from any internet service.

In the early days of censorship in China, there was a huge reliance on the Chinese being willing to censor their own internet use under the encouragement that it was good for the state.

This was also enforced through the belief that internet users were constantly under surveillance, an idea that the government encouraged.

Within three years, internet cafes required a license to open. This was followed by regional moves to remove anonymous online postings by requiring identification of anyone posting online to use their real names. This step is due to become a nationwide regulation in 2017.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to China’s steep increase in censorship. Highlights in June 2017 included the banning of celebrity news platforms on the grounds that they spread falsehoods and vulgarity, and orders signed to make Weibo (the authorized Chinese version of Twitter) shut down any politically sensitive video or audio content.

The following month the restrictions on what was deemed acceptable were tightened further. Any online content, including educational videos that were deemed to be counter to China’s ‘core socialist values’ were banned including anything that showed smoking, luxury lifestyles and abnormal sexual behavior, including homosexuality.

The first major move towards banning VPNs was also made in July, along with moves to clamp down on the users of messaging app WhatsApp.

Further moves were made against the use of VPNs in August, alongside the construction of a more sophisticated censorship system that allows officials to shut down ISPs who do not comply with orders to block sites that were deemed inappropriate.

Russia also heads down the slippery slope

In the early days of the World Wide Web, access in Russia was relatively easy and censorship free.

However, this started to change in 2012, in response to protests in Moscow.

Following these protests, the Roskomnadzor, which had been formed back in 2008, became much more active, with its purpose to police the internet, administer a central list of blocked sites, and remove anything deemed by the government to be inappropriate.

The official reason for the move was the protection of children within Russia, but more recent moves by the Roskomnadzor have shown this to be far from the whole truth.

Of course, there had been some censorship before this; back in 2009, the Roskomnadzor warned media sources that they were responsible for what their readers posted or commented on their boards and forums.

While not directly censoring these sites, the fear the announcement instilled was enough to close some sites, for others to limit or remove comment threads, and for others to employ special moderators to oversee comments and threads.

In the years between 2012 and 2105, it is estimated that 52,000 web pages were blocked in Russia. Those sites were deemed to include information on illicit drugs, child pornography, and acts of suicide.

Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter, among others, were also blocked, albeit briefly.

VPNs locked up

Just as with China, as tensions have grown between Russia and the rest of the world, so too has their grip on the internet.

In 2014 and 2015, increased numbers of news sites were blocked and any site that contained certain terms such as ‘political rally’, or that were seen as promoting radical or extremist groups, including militants, were subject to orders to remove the offending content or be blocked. But, even this would be minimal censorship when compared with what was to come in 2017.

In July this year, Russian officials were given the right to block mirror sites without the need for a judge’s agreement.

This was then followed by the Russian government preparing two bills that would ban the software used for bypassing blocked websites, censor search engines, and bring messaging apps under government control.

The bills were passed with little problem, meaning that proxies and VPNs cannot be used to access blocked content. The law also bans websites from advertising VPN companies. While the law does not ban the use of VPNs or proxies, per say, it's one tiny step away from it. At the same time, the Russian government implemented a new hate speech law, which was a carbon copy of the law passed in Germany earlier in the month.

Are other countries on the same slippery slope?

Western countries have historically enjoyed much more freedom when it comes to sharing information and deciding what they want to view and comment on. However, in recent years those freedoms have started to be curtailed.

In the UK, the government has used public fear of terrorism, child abuse, and even the current economic climate to bring in stricter rules about what can be viewed, as well as new measures to be able to police that content.

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 almost slipped in under the radar of the average internet user. While there was some initial outcry over what became known as the ‘snoopers charter’, this very quickly dissipated as the government stated that it required the power to track and watch the internet usage of its people on mass because of the increased terror threats that the country faced.

The US imposed similar controls through Rule 41, just a month after the UK legislation was pushed through.

Neither government stopped there. In May 2017, the UK government announced that it would be introducing extensive regulations that would allow them to control what was said online.

The regulations would also give them the power to override messaging app security and privacy protocols. Again, these rules would affect the wider population, and not just those considered to have committed acts of hate, violence, or terrorism.

Similar rules were put forward across the European Union and have been made in Egypt, Turkey, and India with a directive that would force social media platforms to better regulate what they allowed to be shown on their platforms.

Even countries who have previously held freedom of speech as a central ideal have taken steps to curb what can and cannot be seen and said online over the last few months, with Canada and Germany instigating new laws that increase their powers to block and even de-list websites that do not follow new restrictions.

In the US, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA, S. 1693) will not only increase the costs and risks to smaller online operators but will also penalize many legitimate businesses who find their sites or forums hijacked by unscrupulous groups and individuals.

Online Censorship a Slippery Slope animated graphic

The Way Forward

With even the more liberal and Westernized countries tightening their grip on Internet freedom, and freedom of speech in general, it is only a matter of time before the strict internet censorship seen in Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia is a reality across the globe.

This has already started in the UK, US, Germany and Canada and on the whole such moves have so far gone unnoticed, or at least have been unchallenged by the majority of the public; mainly because they are being brought in under the guise of anti-terrorism laws and the need to protect people, especially children.

The steps being taken now are the first in a path that removes the right of individuals to freely express themselves online and to view the free expressions of others.

What follows this is the removal of anything deemed to be inappropriate, with the rules governing what is inappropriate being so loosely defined, that anything that makes ruling governments uncomfortable can be shut down.

The consequences for access to social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and such like could be catastrophic, particularly if the general public does not wake up to what is happening before it is too late.

The ability to freely debate, to comment on political thoughts and ideologies, to openly discuss religion, the climate, and anything else of importance are gone. Once it is gone, there is little chance, as this article has shown, of ever getting that freedom of expression back.

What follows then, is a complete lack of privacy online, no more private messaging, with all communications being subject to being read, and the subsequent risks of compromised encryption and security.

What happens then if you make a joke or political comment that the hidden reader takes offense to?

However, the censorship of the internet is born out of the politics of fear, and the need to control the population.

It has little to do with actual protection of the populace. After all, if these measures actually worked to counter people trafficking and terrorism, then surely there would now be less of such occurrences in the world rather than more!

Preventing the curtailing of freedoms needs to start with raising awareness of what is actually happening, rather than what you are told is happening.

The work of activists across the globe is focused firstly on this aim.

Once individuals are aware, it is important for them to stand up and be counted, before it is their freedoms that are curtailed.

This can be achieved through supporting net neutrality, and by looking beyond the politics of fear that are being used to control those who have not yet seen beyond the headlines.

It is important for this to happen, and to happen soon. After all, history is full of examples of what happens when good people do nothing.

About the Author

Kristina is an experienced tech writer and researcher with a keen interest in cybersecurity for businesses and the general public.

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