Internet censorship | around the world

Around the world

Internet censorship and surveillance by country (2018)[72][73][74][75][76]

As more people in more places begin using the Internet for important activities, there is an increase in online censorship, using increasingly sophisticated techniques. The motives, scope, and effectiveness of Internet censorship vary widely from country to country. The countries engaged in state-mandated filtering are clustered in three main regions of the world: east Asia, central Asia, and the Middle East/North Africa.

Countries in other regions also practice certain forms of filtering. In the United States state-mandated Internet filtering occurs on some computers in libraries and K-12 schools. Content related to Nazism or Holocaust denial is blocked in France and Germany. Child pornography and hate speech are blocked in many countries throughout the world.[77] In fact, many countries throughout the world, including some democracies with long traditions of strong support for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, are engaged in some amount of online censorship, often with substantial public support.[78]

Internet censorship in China is among the most stringent in the world. The government blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, the banned spiritual practice Falun Gong, as well as many general Internet sites.[79] The government requires Internet search firms and state media to censor issues deemed officially "sensitive," and blocks access to foreign websites including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.[80] According to a study in 2014,[81] censorship in China is used to muzzle those outside government who attempt to spur the creation of crowds for any reason—in opposition to, in support of, or unrelated to the government. The government allows the Chinese people to say whatever they like about the state, its leaders, or their policies, because talk about any subject unconnected to collective action is not censored. The value that Chinese leaders find in allowing and then measuring criticism by hundreds of millions of Chinese people creates actionable information for them and, as a result, also for academic scholars and public policy analysts.

There are international bodies that oppose internet censorship, for example "Internet censorship is open to challenge at the World Trade Organization (WTO) as it can restrict trade in online services, a forthcoming study argues".[82]

International concerns

Generally, national laws affecting content within a country only apply to services that operate within that country and do not affect international services, but this has not been established clearly by international case law. There are concerns that due to the vast differences in freedom of speech between countries, that the ability for one country to affect speech across the global Internet could have chilling effects.

For example, Google had won a case at the European Court of Justice in September 2019 that ruled that the EU's right to be forgotten only applied to services within the EU, and not globally.[83] But in a contrary decision in October 2019, the same court ruled that Facebook was required to globally comply with a takedown request made in relationship to defamatory material that was posted to Facebook by an Austrian that was libelous of another, which had been determined to be illegal under Austrian laws. The case created a problematic precedent that the Internet may become subject to regulation under the strictest national defamation laws, and would limit free speech that may be acceptable in other countries.[84]

Internet shutdowns

Several governments have resorted to shutting down most or all Internet connections in the country.

This appears to have been the case on 27 and 28 January 2011 during the 2011 Egyptian protests, in what has been widely described as an "unprecedented" internet block.[85][86] About 3500 Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes to Egyptian networks were shut down from about 22:10 to 22:35 UTC 27 January.[85] This full block was implemented without cutting off major intercontinental fibre-optic links, with Renesys stating on 27 January, "Critical European-Asian fiber-optic routes through Egypt appear to be unaffected for now."[85]

Full blocks also occurred in Myanmar/Burma in 2007,[87] Libya in 2011,[88] and Syria during the Syrian civil war.

Almost all Internet connections in Sudan were disconnected from 3 June to 9 July, 2019, in response to a political opposition sit-in seeking civilian rule.[89][90] A near-complete shutdown in Ethiopia lasted for a week after the Amhara Region coup d'état attempt.[91] A week-long shutdown in Mauritania followed disputes over the 2019 Mauritanian presidential election.[92] Other country-wide shutdowns in 2019 include Zimbabwe after a gasoline price protests triggered police violence, Gabon during the 2019 Gabonese coup d'état attempt, and during or after elections in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Benin, Malawi, and Kazakhstan.[93]

Local shutdowns are frequently ordered in India during times of unrest and security concerns.[94] Some countries have used localized Internet shutdowns to combat cheating during exams, including Iraq,[95] Ethiopia, India, Algeria, and Uzbekistan.[93]

Iranian government imposed a total internet shutdown from 16 to 23 November, 2019, in response to the fuel protests.[96]

Reports, ratings, and trends

World map showing the status of YouTube blocking

Detailed country by country information on Internet censorship is provided by the OpenNet Initiative, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, and in the U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor's Human Rights Reports.[97] The ratings produced by several of these organizations are summarized in the Internet censorship by country and the Censorship by country articles.

OpenNet Initiative reports

Through 2010 the OpenNet Initiative had documented Internet filtering by governments in over forty countries worldwide.[24] The level of filtering in 26 countries in 2007 and in 25 countries in 2009 was classified in the political, social, and security areas. Of the 41 separate countries classified, seven were found to show no evidence of filtering in all three areas (Egypt, France, Germany, India, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States), while one was found to engage in pervasive filtering in all three areas (China), 13 were found to engage in pervasive filtering in one or more areas, and 34 were found to engage in some level of filtering in one or more areas. Of the 10 countries classified in both 2007 and 2009, one reduced its level of filtering (Pakistan), five increased their level of filtering (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Korea, and Uzbekistan), and four maintained the same level of filtering (China, Iran, Myanmar, and Tajikistan).[5][74]

Freedom on the Net reports

The Freedom on the Net reports from Freedom House provide analytical reports and numerical ratings regarding the state of Internet freedom for countries worldwide.[72] The countries surveyed represent a sample with a broad range of geographical diversity and levels of economic development, as well as varying levels of political and media freedom. The surveys ask a set of questions designed to measure each country's level of Internet and digital media freedom, as well as the access and openness of other digital means of transmitting information, particularly mobile phones and text messaging services. Results are presented for three areas: Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content, and Violations of User Rights. The results from the three areas are combined into a total score for a country (from 0 for best to 100 for worst) and countries are rated as "Free" (0 to 30), "Partly Free" (31 to 60), or "Not Free" (61 to 100) based on the totals.

Starting in 2009 Freedom House has produced nine editions of the report.[98][99][100][101][102][103][104][105][72] There was no report in 2010. The reports generally cover the period from June through May.

Freedom on the Net Survey Results
  2009[98] 2011[99] 2012[100] 2013[101] 2014[102] 2015[103] 2016[104] 2017[105] 2018[72]
Countries 15 37 47 60 65 65 65 65 65
Free   4 (27%)   8 (22%) 14 (30%) 17 (29%) 19 (29%) 18 (28%) 17 (26%) 16 (25%) 15 (23%)
Partly free   7 (47%) 18 (49%) 20 (43%) 29 (48%) 31 (48%) 28 (43%) 28 (43%) 28 (43%) 30 (46%)
Not free   4 (27%) 11 (30%) 13 (28%) 14 (23%) 15 (23%) 19 (29%) 20 (31%) 21 (32%) 20 (31%)
Improved n/a   5 (33%) 11 (31%) 12 (26%) 12 (18%) 15 (23%) 34 (52%) 32 (49%) 19 (29%)
Declined n/a   9 (60%) 17 (47%) 28 (60%) 36 (55%) 32 (49%) 14 (22%) 13 (20%) 26 (40%)
No change n/a   1   (7%)   8 (22%)   7 (15%) 17 (26%) 18 (28%) 17 (26%) 20 (31%) 20 (31%)

The 2014 report assessed 65 countries and reported that 36 countries experienced a negative trajectory in Internet freedom since the previous year, with the most significant declines in Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. According to the report, few countries demonstrated any gains in Internet freedom, and the improvements that were recorded reflected less vigorous application of existing controls rather than new steps taken by governments to actively increase Internet freedom. The year's largest improvement was recorded in India, where restrictions to content and access were relaxed from what had been imposed in 2013 to stifle rioting in the northeastern states. Notable improvement was also recorded in Brazil, where lawmakers approved the bill Marco Civil da Internet, which contains significant provisions governing net neutrality and safeguarding privacy protection.[102]

Reporters Without Borders (RWB)

RWB "Internet enemies" and "countries under surveillance" lists

In 2006, Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF), a Paris-based international non-governmental organization that advocates freedom of the press, started publishing a list of "Enemies of the Internet".[106] The organization classifies a country as an enemy of the internet because "all of these countries mark themselves out not just for their capacity to censor news and information online but also for their almost systematic repression of Internet users."[107] In 2007 a second list of countries "Under Surveillance" (originally "Under Watch") was added.[108]

When the "Enemies of the Internet" list was introduced in 2006, it listed 13 countries. From 2006 to 2012 the number of countries listed fell to 10 and then rose to 12. The list was not updated in 2013. In 2014 the list grew to 19 with an increased emphasis on censorship. The list has not been updated since 2014.

When the "Countries under surveillance" list was introduced in 2008, it listed 10 countries. Between 2008 and 2012 the number of countries listed grew to 16 and then fell to 11. The list was last updated in 2012.

RWB Special report on Internet Surveillance

On 12 March 2013, Reporters Without Borders published a Special report on Internet Surveillance.[26] The report includes two new lists:

  • a list of "State Enemies of the Internet", countries whose governments are involved in active, intrusive surveillance of news providers, resulting in grave violations of freedom of information and human rights; and
  • a list of "Corporate Enemies of the Internet", companies that sell products that are liable to be used by governments to violate human rights and freedom of information.

The five "State Enemies of the Internet" named in March 2013 are: Bahrain, China, Iran, Syria, and Vietnam.[26]

The five "Corporate Enemies of the Internet" named in March 2013 are: Amesys (France), Blue Coat Systems (U.S.), Gamma International (UK and Germany), Hacking Team (Italy), and Trovicor (Germany).[26]

BBC World Service global public opinion poll

A poll of 27,973 adults in 26 countries, including 14,306 Internet users,[109] was conducted for the BBC World Service by the international polling firm GlobeScan using telephone and in-person interviews between 30 November 2009 and 7 February 2010. GlobeScan Chairman Doug Miller felt, overall, that the poll showed that:

Despite worries about privacy and fraud, people around the world see access to the internet as their fundamental right. They think the web is a force for good, and most don’t want governments to regulate it.[110]

Findings from the poll include:[110]

  • Nearly four in five (78%) Internet users felt that the Internet had brought them greater freedom.
  • Most Internet users (53%) felt that "the internet should never be regulated by any level of government anywhere".
  • Opinion was evenly split between Internet users who felt that “the internet is a safe place to express my opinions” (48%) and those who disagreed (49%). Somewhat surprisingly users in Germany and France agreed the least, followed by users in a highly filtered country such as China, while users in Egypt, India and Kenya agreed more strongly.[5]
  • The aspects of the Internet that cause the most concern include: fraud (32%), violent and explicit content (27%), threats to privacy (20%), state censorship of content (6%), and the extent of corporate presence (3%).
  • Almost four in five Internet users and non-users around the world felt that access to the Internet was a fundamental right (50% strongly agreed, 29% somewhat agreed, 9% somewhat disagreed, 6% strongly disagreed, and 6% gave no opinion).[111] And while there is strong support for this right in all of the countries surveyed, it is surprising that the United States and Canada were among the top five countries where people most strongly disagreed that access to the Internet was a fundamental right of all people (13% in Japan, 11% in the U.S., 11% in Kenya, 11% in Pakistan, and 10% in Canada strongly disagree).[5]

Internet Society's Global Internet User Survey

In July and August 2012 the Internet Society conducted online interviews of more than 10,000 Internet users in 20 countries. Some of the results relevant to Internet censorship are summarized below.[112]

Question No. of Responses Responses[113]
Access to the Internet should be considered a basic human right. 10,789 83% somewhat or strongly agree,
14% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  3% don't know
Freedom of expression should be guaranteed on the Internet. 10,789 86% somewhat or strongly agree,
11% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  2% don't know
The Internet should be governed in some form to protect the community from harm. 10,789 82% somewhat or strongly agree,
15% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  3% don't know / not applicable
Censorship should exist in some form on the Internet. 10,789 71% somewhat or strongly agree,
24% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  5% don't know / not applicable
Each individual country has the right to govern the Internet the way they see fit. 10,789 67% somewhat or strongly agree,
29% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  4% don't know /not applicable
The Internet does more to help society than it does to hurt it. 10,789 83% somewhat or strongly agree,
13% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  4% don't know / not applicable
How often do you read the privacy policies of websites or services that you share personal information with? 10,789 16% all the time,
31% most of the time,
41% sometimes,
12% never
When you are logged in to a service or application do you use privacy protections? 10,789 27% all the time,
36% most of the time,
29% sometimes,
  9% never
Do you use “anonymization” services, for example, the “anonymize” feature in your web browser, specialized software like Tor, third - party redirection services like 10,789 16% yes,
38% no,
43% don't know / not aware of these types of services,
  3% would like to use them but I am not able to
Increased government control of the Internet would put limits on the content I can access. 9,717 77% somewhat or strongly agree,
18% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  4% don't know / not applicable
Increased government control of the Internet would limit my freedom of expression. 9,717 74% somewhat or strongly agree,
23% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  4% don't know / not applicable
Increased government control of the Internet would improve the content on the Internet. 9,717 49% somewhat or strongly agree,
44% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  7% don't know / not applicable
Increased government control of the Internet would make the Internet safe for everyone to use. 9,717 58% somewhat or strongly agree,
35% somewhat or strongly disagree,
  7% don't know / not applicable
Increased government control of the Internet would have no effect. 9,717 31% somewhat or strongly agree,
56% somewhat or strongly disagree,
14% don't know / not applicable
To what degree would you accept increased control or monitoring of the Internet if you gained increased safety? 10,789 61% a lot or somewhat,
23% not very much or not at all

Transparency of filtering or blocking activities

Among the countries that filter or block online content, few openly admit to or fully disclose their filtering and blocking activities. States are frequently opaque and/or deceptive about the blocking of access to political information.[9] For example:

  • Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are among the few states that publish detailed information about their filtering practices and display a notification to the user when attempting to access a blocked website. The websites that are blocked are mostly pornographic or considered un-Islamic.
  • In contrast, countries such as China and Tunisia send users a false error indication. China blocks requests by users for a banned website at the router level and a connection error is returned, effectively preventing the user's IP address from making further HTTP requests for a varying time, which appears to the user as "time-out" error with no explanation. Tunisia has altered the block page functionality of SmartFilter, the commercial filtering software it uses, so that users attempting to access blocked websites receive a fake "File not found" error page.
  • In Uzbekistan users are frequently sent block pages stating that the website is blocked because of pornography, even when the page contains no pornography. Uzbeki ISPs may also redirect users' request for blocked websites to unrelated websites, or sites similar to the banned websites, but with different information.[114]

Arab Spring

See also: Internet Censorship in the Arab Spring, 2011 Egyptian Internet shutdown, and Free speech in the media during the Libyan civil war

During the Arab Spring of 2011, media jihad (media struggle) was extensive. Internet and mobile technologies, particularly social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, played and are playing important new and unique roles in organizing and spreading the protests and making them visible to the rest of the world. An activist in Egypt tweeted, “we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world”.[115]

This successful use of digital media in turn led to increased censorship including the complete loss of Internet access for periods of time in Egypt[85][86][116] and Libya in 2011.[88][117] In Syria, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), an organization that operates with at least tacit support of the government, claims responsibility for defacing or otherwise compromising scores of websites that it contends spread news hostile to the Syrian government. SEA disseminates denial of service (DoS) software designed to target media websites including those of Al Jazeera, BBC News, Syrian satellite broadcaster Orient TV, and Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV.[118]

In response to the greater freedom of expression brought about by the Arab Spring revolutions in countries that were previously subject to very strict censorship, in March 2011, Reporters Without Borders moved Tunisia and Egypt from its "Internet enemies" list to its list of countries "under surveillance"[119] and in 2012 dropped Libya from the list entirely.[76] At the same time, there were warnings that Internet censorship might increase in other countries following the events of the Arab Spring.[120][121] However, in 2013, Libyan communication company LTT blocked the pornographic websites.[122] It even blocked the family-filtered videos of ordinary websites like Dailymotion.[123]