The pro-democracy think tank Freedom House published a report in late 2018 that showed that internet freedom was on the decline for the eighth year running, and suggested that the slump was in large part due to a rise in digital authoritarianism.
The conclusions of the report may come as a surprise to many—particularly as 2018 was the first year on record where the number of internet users passed 4 billion. So let’s take a whistle-stop tour of the digital world, highlighting some of the worst offenders in internet censorship along the way, to give you a flavour of just how rampant this problem is.
We kick off the tour in ol’ Blighty, a country whose pro-democracy stance has been somewhat tarnished of late by several legislative changes to its constitution, most notably, the Investigatory Powers Act.
The act, mockingly nicknamed “The Snooper’s Charter”, was passed in November 2016 and gave UK intelligence agencies and the police the power to intercept private digital communications. It also required internet service providers to retain details of people’s browsing histories for up to a year.
These new powers were said to be in the public’s interest, with many politicians stating that the new law would enable government agencies to tackle things like terrorism and criminality more swiftly. However, as we’ll see, the same reasoning has been used by other countries to instate similar laws, laws which later imposed huge restrictions on what people could do and say online.
Back in 2003, the Saudi Arabian government passed the Law of Printing and Publication. The law was originally meant to limit what journalists critical of the government could publish in print media, but was eventually stretched to include everything from blogs and YouTube videos to everyday comments on social media.
The law means that online communications between citizens can be monitored by the Ministry of the Interior, who hand down lengthy jail sentences for publishing anything online that is seen to excite “fanatical instincts” or “stir up discord among citizens”.
Next we take a short trip across the Red Sea to Eritrea. This country has garnered a lot of international attention for its treatment of the press, after nearly two dozen journalists were imprisoned without charge in 2014.
Often referred to as the world’s most censored country, Eritrea has just one government-controlled television channel and one newspaper. It’s almost no surprise then that the government has also been keen to retain total control – and near total blackout – of internet communications.
WiFi is banned in Eritrea, meaning Eritreans can only access the internet using very antiquated dial-up modems. This has limited how quickly people can communicate across the country and resulted in one of the lowest access rates in the modern world, with just 1% of Eritreans online.
This, of course, suits the government perfectly, and means that news of political abuses are drastically underreported. Refugees fleeing the country note that activists resort to using pirate radio and messages written on banknotes to try and spread word of government injustice.
Back in 2009, the Ethiopian government passed a piece of legislation called the anti-terror proclamation (ATP), which gave the government sweeping powers to monitor citizens’ activity online. The law quickly became a tool for quashing dissent, and later went on to become a weapon for targeting journalists and even opposition party leaders.
Under new government leadership, restrictions on more than 200 websites and TV channels were lifted in 2018, but this followed a period in which millions of Ethiopians had their internet access totally cut off. At the time, it was claimed that services had been deactivated to prevent students from cheating on their exams – but critics noted that internet access was disrupted in unison with major anti-government demonstrations.
No internet censorship tour would be complete without one of the more infamous roadblocks to internet freedom: “The Great Firewall of China”
Behind this nationwide firewall are over one billion internet users, all unable to access the wider web without special provisions like VPNs (virtual private networks). This limits access to information across China and means the Chinese people have a much smaller pool of international news sources from which to learn about the outside world.
Before Xi Jinping came into power, the internet had become a more varied political space for internet users in China. But with a government now keen to silence dissenting voices, serious punishments are being handed out to anyone who tries to access foreign media.
This close monitoring and censoring of the internet is in part an attempt to keep out conflicting ideals, but is also a way for Chinese officials to identify those who disagree with the Communist regime and punish them accordingly.
The final stop of our world tour is North Korea, the biggest proponent of digital censorship on earth, on par with Eritrea for offering incredibly limited online access.
The web in North Korea isn’t sleek or stylised, and is instead quite unsophisticated, with websites that are rarely updated having astronomically slow load times.
North Korea is a country known for providing its inhabitants with a constant flow of political propaganda, and not much else. Under Kim Jong-Un’s dictatorship, the few websites that North Korean citizens can access are awash with praise for the Glorious Leader. They feature tales of impressive acts which, for the most part, may never have happened at all.
Those who have escaped North Korea’s authoritarian regime have shared news of gross human rights abuses and widespread use of forced labour and executions for even the most estranged families of anyone who protests the way things are done. The internet shutdown is so effective, in fact, that as well as preventing news from getting out to the rest of the world, many North Korean citizens are thought to be completely unaware of their government’s activities.
James Murray is a professional copywriter and researcher.