Internet censorship around the globe continues to intensify. According to a report by the independent monitoring group Freedom House, for the fifth consecutive year, more nations are censoring information online and demanding that companies and individuals remove content or face retribution.
The annually released Freedom of the Net Report assessed 65 countries and identified China as the worst offender. University scholar Ilham Tohti, who became a leading voice in the Uighur opposition to Beijing’s policies, was sentenced in September 2014 to life in prison for questioning online the government’s decisions. This is one of the toughest sentences in the country in recent years.
Gady Epstein, former Beijing bureau chief for The Economist magazine, said China has become more aggressive with censorship in the last couple of years under President Xi Jinping.
“They’ve blocked Google; they’ve blocked Gmail and other Google services. They arrested more online activists, people who comment independently on a range of issues, including corruption,” said Epstein.
Freedom House said China is only one nation in which this type of crackdown has been increasing. In Russia and Iran, people who post content deemed offensive by the government can quickly and easily land in prison.
“Those countries tend to block materials of political and social relevance. They tend to arrest users for writing about human rights and opposition,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the report.
Syria is the second-worst performer in the study. Bloggers, journalists and activists face execution by armed groups in the country, according to Freedom House.
In Iran, rated the third-worst nation, Tehran’s conservative powerbrokers, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keep extremely tight control over the Internet, despite better bandwidth and the increase of 3G cellular connections.
Social media’s role
Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, increasingly play a big role in the way people get access to information in countries with restricted Web freedom. These social media services, however, are banned from nations like China and Iran. That means citizens there have to find alternative ways to use them and have contact with family and friends abroad who post content they would not otherwise be able to reach.
“It is actually because of their desire to connect to these popular media platforms that they’re seeking circumvention tools, and they’re seeking the use of VPNs [virtual private networks] so they can then bypass censorship," Kelly said. "And then, as a result of that, they are able to read a whole vast world of information out there.”
The combination of social media services and content that authorities dislike, though, can be life-shattering. That is the case for Atena Farghadani, 28, an Iranian cartoonist. She was sentenced to 12 years in jail for posting one of her caricatures on Facebook, which portrayed Iranian lawmakers as animals.
Threats to companies
Freedom House said that during the research for the report, which focuses on events from June 2014 through May 2015, it stumbled upon a new development: Governments increasingly attack the source now. Kelly said authorities warn individuals that they must remove offensive content or face torture or imprisonment.
The watchdog group emphasized that this new approach also extends to technology companies.
“The governments are actually going to the company and saying, ‘This type of information exists on your servers. Take it down. If you don’t take it down, we’re going to either block your services or we’re going to take away your license so you will not be able to operate in our country any longer,’ ” said Kelly.
Experts say Beijing’s efforts not only have proven successful inside the country’s borders for the last two decades, but also abroad. Analysts assert that as China exports its model around the world, especially in Central Asia, Chinese companies also are sharing their expertise in Internet censorship. Journalist Epstein said he witnessed this firsthand in Kazakhstan.
“In there, what they’ve done is brought Chinese hardware and know-how — you know, Huawei, CTE, these folks who make their routers and have built their Internet infrastructure,” he said. “But they weren’t just copying China. They’re also looking to Russia, where they are basically importing Russian censorship. So it is a blend, especially in the former Soviet republics.”