Within hours of the recent mass shooting at a New Zealand mosque by a far-right terrorist, the country’s authorities were scrambling to ensure a sickening video the murderer streamed on Facebook was barred from the nation’s screens. Due to the nature of the Internet, the task of removal proved very difficult. But eventually, the government succeeded — using controversial tactics usually associated with Internet censorship by authoritarian regimes.
For some, the action of one highly democratic nation was a worrying reminder that Internet freedom should not be taken for granted. For others it was a triumph of taste and decency over a Wild West online community that still refuses to accept regulation while simultaneously failing to take responsibility for its actions.
a billion Internet users are barely aware that Facebook and Google exist
Versions of this debate are being played out around the world, as authorities, online companies, journalists and web professionals try to strike a balance between free speech and protecting Internet users from highly offensive — and potentially also subversive — content. The spread of “fake news”, alleged attempts by foreign powers to meddle in elections, and the age-old difficulty of defining what should be permitted in a free society, are all part of this debate.
With the technology and the excuses for Internet censorship already in place, it’s a debate that will shape the future of the Web. Or should that be ‘futures’, plural?
Full Censorship Can Be Achieved
In China, a billion Internet users are barely aware that Facebook and Google exist. Authorities have no difficulty in ensuring unpleasant content is not seen on the search engines and social media boards that are available there: The Christchurch video was blocked just as effectively as disturbing footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre is, because the Chinese government has built a system of highly effective controls on the Internet known as “the Great Firewall of China”.
Officially called the Golden Shield Project, China’s system of Internet controls has made fools of the experts who said that the Internet could not be tamed or censored. Jon Penney, a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Toronto’s Citizen Lab, told Open Democracy recently that although China’s technology is not yet fully understood by the west, it is:
…among the most technically sophisticated Internet filtering/censorship systems in the world.
“Basically, access to the Internet in China is provided by eight Internet Service Providers, which are licensed and controlled by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology,” he said. “These ISPs are important, because we’re learning that they do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of content filtering and censorship.”
Controlling ISPs was one crucial brick of that firewall that allowed New Zealand to take the Christchurch killer’s video down. Indeed, what was controversial for many was the use of such an approach — and the fact that the government used a set of unpublished ‘blacklists’ of the sites it required to be blocked. Kalev Leetaru, a big data expert, wrote on Forbes: “The secret nature of the blacklist and opaque manner in which the companies decided which websites to add to the list or how to appeal an incorrect listing, echoed similar systems deployed around the world in countries like China.”
A Different Internet
China’s great firewall also tracks and filters keywords used in search engines; blocks many IP addresses; and can ‘hijack’ the Domain Name System to ensure attempts to access banned sites draw a blank. This is thought to be done at ISP level, but also further along the system as well, ensuring that browsing even a permitted foreign site from within China can be frustratingly slow. But with sites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia blocked, most Chinese users simply view an entirely different Internet and App ecosystem.
most Chinese users simply view an entirely different Internet
Adrian Shahbaz, the research director for technology and democracy at Freedom House, an independent watchdog for democracy, says other authoritarian regimes — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are already showing interest in China’s technology and censorship system. Russia is building its own version, which will allow it to totally isolate the domestic web from the rest of the Internet; ostensibly, this is to ensure the country’s ability to defend itself from a “catastrophic cyber attack”.
There are concerns that this censorship will spread to the West, where attempts to clamp down on hate speech, and to stop foreign ‘trolls’ pushing fake news in a bid to cause instability and influence elections, mean there is no shortage of justification for introducing controls. French President Emanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump are among the democratic leaders who have threatened crackdowns in the last few months alone.
Censorship or Responsible Regulation?
ISP controls and direct censorship are not the only threats to a unified and ‘free’ internet. With most people consuming their Internet through just a few very popular social media platforms or mainstream news providers, governments can also lean directly on these companies. Singapore — a country that admittedly sits in the bottom 30 of the Press Freedom Index — has just introduced a new “anti-fake news law” allowing authorities in the city-state to remove articles deemed to breach government regulations.
The country’s prime minister said the law will require media outlets to correct fake news articles, and “show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods so that readers or viewers can see all sides and make up their own minds about the matter.”
Internet giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have their Asia headquarters in Singapore and are expected to come under pressure to aid implementation, meaning that those sites could look different when viewed from the city-state. Singapore may not be known for its freedom of speech, but its approach is telling as to how less authoritarian regimes — and those without China’s technology — can impose a creeping web censorship by leaning of the big tech companies that deliver most of the Internet users see.
The Singaporean premier added that “in extreme and urgent cases, the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done.” It is not hard to imagine these words coming from a Western leader, or a judge.
Facebook is Already on Board
Facebook itself, after coming under intense pressure over the use of the site to spread everything from dubious news reports to videos promoting suicide, has now joined the calls for regulation. “From what I’ve learned, I believe we need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement recently.
Copyright as Censorship
On the subject of data, Zuckerberg cited Europe’s GDPR — a set of regulations governing the use and storage of personal data — as an example to follow. But it is another EU law, passed in recent weeks, that threatens further Internet fragmentation.
The new Copyright Directive will require tech firms to automatically screen for and remove unauthorised copyrighted material from their platforms. Many campaigners have argued the directive will be harmful to free expression, since the only way to guarantee compliance is to simply block any user-generated content that references other copyrighted material in any way, including criticism, remixes, or even simple quotes.
until now, people have been relatively free to publish material online and then suffer the consequences
While the EU directive aims to bolster quality online news journalism by banning its wholesale re-use, sites that rely on user-generated content could end up looking very different when viewed from within Europe, compared to the US for example. Experts talk of a “splintering”, which means that there will effectively be different Internets in different jurisdictions.
Copyright enforcement, of course, is not censorship. And there have always been categories of images, for example, that are illegal in most jurisdictions. But until now, people have been relatively free to publish material online and then suffer the consequences, as was the case in the days of print. Proponents of tighter controls at source argue that simply removing material from sites once it is known to be illegal is a never-ending and ultimately pointless task, especially in the face of organized ’trolls’ who can re-post at will.
During the first 24 hours after the Christchurch attack, Facebook removed 1.5 million re-posts of the murderer’s video, for example. It was only the introduction of controls at ISP level that finally blocked it in New Zealand, at least.
The Human Element
“Extremist content” and “fake news’ look set to be the next targets for politicians who favor stricter Internet controls, or, as they may argue, greater responsibility from ISP providers or major websites. Unlike copyright, this is at least partially subjective, and would require real people, employed by the authorities, to decide what is acceptable on our screens. China, naturally, already employs an army of such censors; it even pays another large group to post material that is explicitly favorable to its policies.
Leetaru said: “Like New Zealand’s recent blocking efforts, China’s system officially exists for the same reason: to block access to disturbing content and content that would disrupt social order. In the Chinese case, however, the system has famously morphed to envelope all content that might threaten the government’s official narratives or call into question its actions.
“In New Zealand’s case, website censorship was limited to a small set of sites allegedly hosting sensitive content relating to the attack. Yet, the government’s apparent comfort with instituting such a nation-wide ban so swiftly and without debate reminds us of how Chinese-style censorship begins.”
Can’t imagine it happening? Britain’s government recently published a ‘White Paper’ — a way of signalling possible legislation — which proposed that social media companies should be forced to take down, within 24 hours, “unacceptable material” that “undermines our democratic values and principles”.
What Constitutes Fake News?
Exactly what constitutes “fake news” has always been open to interpretation: during election campaigns, some democratic leaders have already learned that it is a good label to discredit critical reports with. In Russia, fake news was banned recently, and is defined as anything that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”
One area that is being actively targeted in Europe is “extremist” material fostering violence or hatred. In Germany, which already has a system to force platforms to remove “hate speech,” this has recently included censure on a woman who posted pictures of the Iranian women’s volleyball team to contrast their attire in the 1970s (shorts and vests) and now (headscarves and long sleeves).
The following joke was deemed hateful enough to land the poster a social media ban: “Muslim men are taking a second wife. To finance their lives, Germans are taking a second job.”
Another area that Western governments are showing increasing concern about is private groups that carefully regulate membership, designed to allow like-minded people to share their views unchallenged. Already, there have been calls for Facebook to clamp down on these closed groups or “echo chambers”, on the grounds that they are able to serve undiluted misinformation without challenge. While these requests may once again sound reasonable, it is unclear what would constitute an echo chamber and what kind of ‘misinformation’ could be considered unacceptable — or indeed, who would decide that.
How to Beat the Censors
For those wanting to beat EU copywrite laws and, for example, see a meme their friend in California is ‘lol-ing’ about, a virtual private network (VPN) should be a good solution. Already recommended by many security experts, VPNs are encrypted proxy servers that hide your own IP address and can make it look like you are browsing from a different country. For occasional use, even using a public proxy site, a ‘browser within a browser’ may well work.
There are various levels of VPN – an in depth look at the options is available here. However, sophisticated censorship systems such as the Great Firewall of China are capable of detecting VPN use and blocking that too.
A popular alternative to VPN use is the Tor browser, which is designed with anonymity in mind. Although experts rate Tor’s privacy features (and therefore its anti-censorship abilities) higher than VPNs, Tor can also be blocked. What’s more, you have to install the browser on your device and using Tor does not hide the fact that you are using Tor. Both Tor and VPNs are illegal in some countries and their use could put you at risk.
Tor is also the gateway of preference for accessing the Deep Web or Dark Web — which are also used heavily by activists and journalists who are trying to circumvent curbs on their freedom of expression. In a detailed article explaining how to access and use the Dark Web, technology journalist Conor Shiels says:
The Deep Web has been heralded by many as the last bastion of internet privacy in an increasingly intrusive age, while others consider it one of the evilest places on the internet.
The Deep Web is technically any site not indexed by search engines. Such sites would be an obvious place for private groups to base themselves if they are thrown of Facebook or even banned — although of course they may find it harder to recruit new members if they remain hidden from the casual user.
Although the Deep or Dark Web is a popular place for illegal activity, it is not illegal in itself. For those seeking an uncensored experience, it remains a place hidden from the authorities, but of course, the flip side is that you will be hiding your own postings from the vast majority of web users. This aspect of censorship will perhaps be the hardest to bypass as authorities move to cut off the most popular sites and platforms from certain news, views and activities.
Featured image via Unsplash.