Certain platforms might take down your homemade pornography, or censor your conspiracist podcast, but here the internet is a fairly open place. As long as what you’re peddling isn’t actively illegal—or as long as you’re not peddling illegal wares too flagrantly—you’re free to set up shop elsewhere.
Whether ours is the best of all possible internets is beyond the scope of this article (and this author). What we’re interested in, for this week’s Giz Asks, are the governments that do actively censor their internet—specifically, the one that censors it most aggressively. To find out which government that is, we reached out to a number of experts in internet censorship, law, and history.
Professor and Department Head of Communications and Professor of Political Science (affiliate) at the University of Illinois-Chicago who studies the social and political impact of technology
All countries monitor internet activity, in ways both latent and overt. Censorship is a specific course of action that focuses on banning certain activities, to put it plainly. From this point of view, some would argue that China censors online activity, because it has designed its system to exclude several platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, and in turn has endorsed locally sources platforms developed and/or owned by Tencent. These include WeChat, for instance, which is an app popular beyond China and preferred in most of Asia. For several folks, WeChat is considered much more flexible than US-developed similar platforms. So yes, China has excluded several products from its market, but on the other hand, in so doing, it has produced a reasonable alternative. And while in the US we follow different, open market mechanisms, the structure of the markets and actions of agents often eliminate competition and introduce oligopolies, or even, monopolies of online services and platforms. China, Singapore, and several other countries have a history of not only controlling app use, but also targeting, monitoring, and restricting specific types of content. So do a number of other countries; we tend to see censorship attempts online mostly during times of political uncertainty, during uprisings, and generally speaking, during political upheaval.
The important point here is not who is the most censored. When it comes to surveillance, all countries are guilty. All countries monitor and all countries censor, in ways that are visible and invisible to us as users. In the US, for instance, we may make the argument that fewer incidents of direct censorship are observable. Still, because the platforms we use give us such limited options for privacy, we often self-censor. So we also monitor what we say, to whom, and with what potential effect. What is worse? To be censored or to daily censor yourself because you are not sure how your personal data will be stored, used, or deployed?
I would flip the question and ask instead: Which country has the least censored internet? And the answer to that is: The country that has the least access to the internet.
With the internet, many of our abilities are amplified, including the ability to monitor. In the absence of a regulatory framework that offers guidelines and protects citizens, we will continue to see surveillance and censorship, of the visible and invisible variety.
“We tend to see censorship attempts online mostly during times of political uncertainty, during uprisings, and generally speaking, during political upheaval.”
Associate Chair and Professor of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico whose research focuses on freedom of expression and the right to privacy online, among other things
Which country has the most censored internet is somewhat subjective. If you think of censorship as being about what the average citizen can’t do, then you would answer countries like North Korea or Cuba where having Internet access at all is only for the privileged few. If you think of censorship as being about what you can do, in terms of having real internet access for a large swath of the population while maintaining control over what they can use it for, then China and Iran have always been the leaders and will continue to be for a long time, probably. Both of those two countries are extremely innovative when it comes to restricting the internet in graduated ways. But if you think of censorship in a general sense that includes surveillance (since surveillance can lead to self censorship) then the Five Eyes countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are arguably the most “censored” in the sense that they are decades ahead of any other country in terms of monitoring what everyone is doing online at scale and attacking any kind of anonymity or privacy tools that would limit their view.
“If you think of censorship as being about what the average citizen can’t do, then you would answer countries like North Korea or Cuba where having Internet access at all is only for the privileged few.”
Associate Professor, Media Studies, the University of Tulsa, and author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet
Easy: Antarctica. If you are a scientist with a fancy satellite hook-up, you might be able to upload a selfie. Otherwise, tough luck: fibre freezes.
After that, probably North Korea. A tiny fraction of the elite population have access to the web, a small portion of the rest of the country has access to a highly censored intranet, and probably less than 10% of the population have cell phones. But even here, in the extreme cases, the question is not so easy.
To twist the line from Tolstoy, “All uncensored countries are all alike; every censored country is unhappy in its own way.” So a better question might be, “How does censorship make the citizens of different countries unhappy, or happy, and why?” Answering that requires first listening to the people who are censored, which is a tricky research problem.
My hunch is that any proper attempt to rank-order our network condition worldwide will fall apart. Or rather, it will lead to our needing to first describe the much richer question of just how wildly uneven the experience of the internet is around world. A few censorship-related questions might help get us there: do most mobile users recognise encrypted messaging tools? Would we recognise blocking when it happens, and how can we be sure? Does deep packet inspection count as censorship, and how might the effects of surveillance cash out in ways we cannot always see? How are pressures to censor our behaviour on- and offline enforced informally and in person (bribes, reputation risks, and other forms of discrimination: oh, and is NSFW a kind of internal filtering)? What can victims of disembodied trolling online learn from how the internet feeds informal pressures in the flesh (and what might Diogenes the Cynic have to do with this)? At what point does not investing in telecommunication network infrastructure throttle a country? Who decides what counts as “fake news” and when to draw lines between protected speech, toxic speech, and corporate capital? I suspect there are no easy rank-order answers to these questions.
Still, among the many ways to be unhappy online, I see at least a few constants: The historical trend has been for early-adopting countries to both shape the internet more and censor the internet less than late-comers, so those tensions are fairly predictable and powerful. Second, where your internet service provider sits matters, since some corporations and governments may protect that service from malicious actors and others may want to become bad actors themselves. Third, your access to unequal infrastructures—how much of the world shares your native language online, how much education and literacy you enjoy, how stable your electric grid is, your proximity to bottlenecks in the ISP and undersea cable networks, and your access to resources to change any of this—obviously all shape your experience of life online and off. (The rural-urban digital divide is sometimes wider in a country than between countries.)
A lot of the question of what values control the global internet today boil down to the age-old question of who appoints which referees where. From e-Antarctica to sea cable, the first question to ask might be, Where in the world is the internet?
“Easy: Antarctica. If you are a scientist with a fancy satellite hook-up, you might be able to upload a selfie. Otherwise, tough luck: fibre freezes.”
Senior Lecturer of Social Sciences at Södertörn University who specialises in the use of the internet and media technology for journalism, access to information, freedom of expression and public good.
When it comes to internet censorship general, I’d say no one comes close to China, which holds the record for the highest number of Internet users (reaching 828 million by December 2018) and most sophisticated multi-layered censorship system—often dubbed as the “Great Firewall.” As of late 2018, over ten thousand websites remain blocked from access in mainland China including websites often seen as indispensable to many users around the world such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Even Google had to shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010 after pressure to filter search results based on certain governmental directives; now all Google traffic goes to google.hk, which remains uncensored.
Instead of the globally renowned US-based social media platforms, users end up using Chinese alternatives such as Baidu, QQ, Sohu, Sina, Weibo which apply their content censorship policies based on governmental directives. In addition to website censorship, China has also been actively preventing using tools to circumvent censorship such as VPNs, Tor, and other similar proxy services. In 2019, a Chinese citizen was fined $145 USD for using a VPN in China.
A distant second in my view is Iran, whose censorship policies are pervasive and go beyond website filtering to non-technical censorship methods like prosecution of bloggers and online journalists and surveillance, which in turn prevents users from openly expressing their views online. After those countries, I’d argue that the Middle East is home to several countries that apply all sorts of internet censorship methods. Notable examples are Saudi Arabia, whose draconian cyber laws are used to silence critics on the internet as demonstrated by the case of blogger Raif Badawi, who remains in jail after being sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a fine simply for expressing his views online. Syria, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen are also some of those that suffer from censorship of content including porn and religious and political views.
“When it comes to internet censorship general, I’d say no one comes close to China, which holds the record for the highest number of Internet users... and most sophisticated multi-layered censorship system... A distant second in my view is Iran, whose censorship policies are pervasive and go beyond website filtering to non-technical censorship methods like prosecution of bloggers and online journalists and surveillance, which in turn prevents users from openly expressing their views online.”
Associate Professor of Communications Studies at Concordia University whose research focuses on the internet’s infrastructure, among other things
To me, the internet is censored everywhere to some degree. This censorship can be removing harmful speech or the constant takedowns of suspected infringing content. So for me, it’s less about censorship than democratic accountability. And that’s a global problem because we lack proper oversight over the community standards of all major companies, letting those without proper training, oversight or awareness of structural inequity moderate speech. To me that’s, further censoring many marginalised peoples such as women and indigenous voices here in Canada who have to worry about the harassment they’ll receive for speaking their minds.
“That’s a global problem because we lack proper oversight over the community standards of all major companies, letting those without proper training, oversight or awareness of structural inequity moderate speech.”
Professor of Information, Risk & Operations Management at the University of Texas at Austin
Before accepting any simple ranking of nations, we must determine how we can measure or understand censorship. Clearly, we need to distinguish lack of access due to economic reasons from restricted access by deliberate government or provider intervention. While it might seem that all censorship is tied to the suppression of dissent or the control of the press, internet censorship is also justified by an appeal to the maintenance of ‘traditional’ values, the assurance of information quality, or the protection of national security. In short, like pornography, we all seem to know what it is when we see it but censorship is not simply defined. And this is important for understanding how internet censorship will affect us all.
Countries with less open democratic structures tend to maintain central control over providers and restrict access to or closely monitor postings on social media. Thus on most rankings of internet censorship, North Korea, China and Russia are cited as the major offenders but it’s increasingly clear that internet censorship exists in multiple forms and may actually be on the rise, in some form, everywhere. Governments and political leadership in various Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are usually cited as strong censors and Syria has extremely restrictive laws on usage. African nations such as Ethiopia and Eritrea similarly control access and punish citizens and journalists for sharing information that is deemed subversive. In the West, we see evidence of internet censorship in Cuba, even in Mexico where broadcast media ownership is highly concentrated, but these examples refer only to the most obvious indices. While not completely equivalent to internet censorship, Reporters Without Borders currently places 44 other countries ahead of the US in their index of Press Freedom, raising broader concerns with how we ensure and measure freedom of information flow.
With the the rise of misinformation, cyberattacks, threats to privacy, and the recognition of data and human attention as sources of profit, the emerging global information infrastructure is likely to raise greater concerns with censorship in all nations. Large corporations increasingly shape and control access to and content of online platforms which will require regulation and policies that serve competing interests. Governments worldwide will continue to seek influence over information they deem threatening so citizens. In the end, citizens will need to be better educated to understand the important distinction between censorship and quality control in order to protect freedom of access and expression. The rankings of nations are temporary, our concerns with censorship will be permanent.
Featured image: Illustration: Benjamin Currie (Gizmodo)