Demonstrations outside of Google's London headquarters. Demotix/Brian Minkoff. All rights reserved.
When in August of 2011, riots broke out on the streets of cities across the UK, China saw an opportunity: The apparent hypocrisy in calls for strengthening the monitoring of online communications from British officials provided just the justification needed for the Chinese government to strengthen its extensive censorship regime. As an opinion writer argued in China’s state owned Xinhua News, “We may wonder why western leaders, on the one hand, tend to indiscriminately accuse other nations of monitoring, but on the other take for granted their steps to monitor and control the internet.”
While in the end UK officials backed down, was China wrong to make the comparison? For all the west’s talk of internet freedom for all, the reality is much more nuanced. From France -where the law allows for a person’s internet access to be revoked for multiple copyright-related offences - to the US, where extrajudicial calls by government officials resulted in a near-complete financial blockade for whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, ‘internet freedom’ is often marred by instances of censorship in the name of copyright, national security, or ‘the children.’
Still, the worst instances of online censorship do not originate in the US or France but in countries like China, Iran, Vietnam, and Bahrain and, as the aforementioned example makes clear, are often justified by the sins of the west. There are also ‘middle ground’ countries like Russia, which invokes national sovereignty to stake its right to providing “internet safety.”
As expert Katherine Maher wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine, the internet once broke down borders created by the emergence of the nation state, allowing for “shared humanity in all its messy glory.” Now, however, in the interest of protecting their borders, governments -democratic, authoritarian, and everywhere in between - are re-invoking arguments of state sovereignty to stifle dissent and protect national and economic interests.
Indeed, by allowing citizens of different countries to connect in friendship, commerce, and yes, sharing, the internet can seem like a threat to governments bent on protecting their interests. Saudi Arabia extensively censors even the slightest of sexual content to protect the morals of its citizenry. Pakistan heavily blocks content from some of its minorities to protect the ‘integrity’ of the state. The United States seizes domain names of websites dealing in counterfeit goods in the interest of its economy. And the list goes on.
To governments, and at least some of their citizens, such regulations may seem justified. But for many others - particularly those for whom the web opened a world of possibility deemed impossible within the confines of their usual environment - they represent the tyranny of the majority.
The beauty of the internet’s borderless nature - if not its current reality - is that it allows us to transgress the impositions of local culture, experience, (and sometimes law), giving those with alternative or minority views a chance to explore the world of possibilities outside national borders.
As visionary John Perry Barlow once wrote in his Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace, “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” Barlow foresaw the coming “guard posts” governments would erect to “ward off the virus of liberty”- and although the words he used resonated amongst the denizens of the internet, it wasn’t long before governments the world over began to see things differently.
By 2012, the OpenNet Initiative estimated that 47% of the world’s internet users were viewing the internet through a fractured lens, a number that is sure to have increased in the past year as countries like Jordan and Russia crack down on digital freedoms. While the basic methods and reasoning for censorship have changed little since the 1990s, governments are becoming ever more savvy, finding ways to mask their intent to the world while persecuting citizens at home.
There is the concept of ‘just in time’ censorship, whereby a government censors certain websites or shuts down the internet during a time of election or protest. A tactic common to certain Gulf countries involves blocking individual Twitter accounts rather than denying access to the platform as a whole. Some countries bypass filtering altogether, preferring instead to sweep ‘undesirable’ citizens under the rug, arresting them for expressing their views. Concepts like national security and ‘preserving national interest’ are increasingly invoked by governments fearing the influx of ideas or people that don’t suit their idea of what their citizens should do or look like.
And often, seemingly acceptable restrictions - for example, those designed to protect the intellectual property of artists and musicians - come with hidden strings attached. In the United States, the Stop Online Piracy Act defeated in 2012 would have restricted the use of circumvention tools, the very tools that are often financed by the US government for use in highly censorious countries. A new effort in Jordan to block pornography - which one might imagine to be desirable to a conservative populace - goes a bit beyond the pale: the software that will allegedly be installed at the ISP level blocks Facebook by default.
Ultimately, underneath all of these governmental efforts lies fear: fear that citizens might find something unacceptable about their government and rise up. Fear that citizens’ newfound knowledge might change the shape of a given culture. Fear that the status quo, often authoritarian rule, will change.
Fortunately, this is simply human nature. Just like the printing press, the automobile, and the telephone before it, the internet enables - or rather, encourages - us to reach beyond the confines of the mind and the nation state for something bigger and better than what we know.