Website blocking is typically implemented by ISPs acting on instructions from a government agent, judge, or other appointed entity, whose orders may apply to a particular domain name, an internet-protocol (IP) address, or a specific URL. ISPs keep track of and periodically receive updates on the resulting blacklists of banned sites. In a small number of countries, the filtering technology employed is more sophisticated, and can scan users’ browsing requests for certain banned keywords. Keyword filtering is much more nuanced, enabling access to a given website but not to a particular article containing a sensitive keyword in its URL path.
Among the countries studied, China, Iran, and Tunisia are known to have such systems in place. In China, which boasts the world’s most comprehensive censorship apparatus, keyword filtering is evident in instant-messaging services as well, having been built into the software of popular messaging programs like TOM Skype and QQ.
Two of the countries categorized by Freedom House as electoral democracies—Turkey and South Korea—were also found to engage in substantial political censorship. In Turkey, a range of advanced web applications were blocked, including the video-sharing website YouTube, which was not accessible in Turkey from May 2008 to October 2010. South Korean authorities blocked access to an estimated 65 North Korea–related sites, including the official North Korean Twitter account, launched in August 2010. Meanwhile, the governments of Australia, Indonesia, and Italy introduced proposals that would enable automated filtering by ISPs, create a state-led multimedia content screening entity, and extend prescreening requirements from television broadcasting to video-hosting websites, respectively. By the end of 2010, these proposals had been set aside or amended to remove the most egregious requirements.
One aspect of censorship was evident across the full spectrum of countries studied: the arbitrariness and opacity surrounding decisions to restrict particular content. In most nondemocratic settings, there is little government effort to inform the public about which content is censored and why. In many cases, authorities avoid confirming that a website has been OVERVIEW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES, INNOVATIVE REPRESSION FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net deliberately blocked and instead remain silent or cite “technical problems.” Saudi Arabia does inform users when they try to access a blocked site, and the rules governing internet usage are clearly articulated on government portals, but as in many countries, the Saudi authorities often disregard their own guidelines and block sites at will. Even in more transparent, democratic environments, censorship decisions are often made by private entities and without public discussion, and appeals processes may be onerous, little known, or nonexistent.
The widespread use of circumvention tools has eased the impact of content censorship and at times undermined it significantly. Such tools are particularly effective in countries with a high degree of computer literacy or relatively unsophisticated blocking techniques. For example, YouTube remained the eighth most popular website among Turkish users despite being officially blocked in that country for over two years, and the number of Vietnamese Facebook users doubled from one to two million within a year after November 2009, when the site became inaccessible by ordinary means. Users need special skills and knowledge to overcome blockages in countries such as China and Iran, where filtering methods are more sophisticated and the authorities devote considerable resources to limiting the effectiveness of circumvention tools. Still, activists with the requisite abilities managed to communicate with one another, discuss national events in an uncensored space, and transmit news and reports of human rights abuses abroad.
Cyberattacks Against Regime Critics Intensify Some governments and their sympathizers are increasingly using technical attacks to disrupt activists’ online networks, eavesdrop on their communications, and cripple their websites. Such attacks were reported in at least 12 of the countries covered in this study. However, attacks perpetrated by nonstate actors for ordinary criminal purposes are also a growing problem, particularly as internet penetration deepens and more users turn to the medium for shopping, banking, and other activities.
China has emerged as a major global source of cyberattacks. Although not all attacks originating in the country have been explicitly traced back to the government, their scale, organization, and chosen targets have led many experts to conclude that they are either sponsored or condoned by Chinese military and intelligence agencies. The assaults have included denial-ofservice (DoS) attacks on domestic and overseas human rights groups, e-mail messages to foreign journalists that carry malicious software capable of spying on the recipient’s computer, and largescale hacking raids on the information systems of over 30 financial, defense, and technology companies, most of them based in the United States. In addition, independent analysts have detected cyberespionage networks that extend to 103 countries as part of an effort to spy on the Tibetan government-in-exile and its foreign government contacts.
As with offline forms of violence and intimidation, governments seem most likely to resort to cyberattacks when their power is threatened by disputed elections or some other political crisis.
In Iran, for example, during the mass protests that followed the June 2009 presidential election, many opposition news sites were disabled by intense DoS attacks, and there is technical evidence confirming that government-owned IP addresses were used to launch the assaults. A group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army, which operates under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary OVERVIEW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES, INNOVATIVE REPRESSION FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net Guard Corps, managed to hack a number of other sites with a mix of technical methods and forgery.
Similarly, in the wake of fraudulent elections in Belarus in Countries where websites December 2010, the government initiated DoS attacks against or blogs of government opposition websites, dramatically slowing down their opponents faced cyber connections and in some instances rendering them completely attacks in 2009-2010:
inaccessible. Belarusian authorities also engaged in a type of web Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, forgery designed to confuse users and provide false information.
Iran, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, For example, the country’s largest ISP, the state-owned Belpak, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, redirected users from independent media sites to nearly identical Tunisia, Vietnam clones that provided misleading information, such as the incorrect location of a planned opposition rally.
The Tunisian regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali accelerated its hacking activity in the run-up to the January 2011 uprising that drove it from power. Security officials regularly broke into the e-mail, Facebook, and blogging accounts of opposition and human rights activists, either deleting specific material or simply collecting intelligence about their plans and contacts.
Governments Increasingly Exploit Centralized Infrastructure and Built-In Internet Chokepoints Although it often goes largely unnoticed, centralized government control over a country’s connection to international internet traffic poses a significant threat to online free expression and privacy, particularly at times of political turmoil. In about a third of the states examined, the authorities have exploited their control over infrastructure to limit widespread access to politically and socially controversial content, or in extreme cases, to cut off access to the internet entirely.
This centralization can take several forms. In Ethiopia and Cuba, for example, state-run telecommunications companies hold a monopoly on internet service, giving them unchecked control over users’ ability to communicate with one another and the outside world. Elsewhere, the state-run company’s control of the market is not complete, but its dominance is sufficient to significantly influence people’s access to information. Thus when CANTV in Venezuela or Kazakhtelecom in Kazakhstan block a website, it becomes inaccessible to the vast majority of internet users.
As a growing number of governments liberalize the ISP market, such centralization may become less obvious. In countries including Egypt and Belarus, a state-controlled company owns the country’s network of copper wires or fiber-optic cables and sells bandwidth downstream to a variety of retail-level ISPs. In China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia, an array of three to eight international gateways are available to multiple, economically competitive ISPs, yet ultimate control over the country’s connectivity rests with the government.
Of the 37 countries assessed, 19 had at least a partially centralized and governmentcontrolled international connection. Authorities in at least 12 of these were known to have used their leverage to restrict users’ access to politically relevant information or engage in widespread OVERVIEW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES, INNOVATIVE REPRESSION FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net surveillance. Egypt joined the list in January 2011, when officials shut down the internet nationwide for five days in an unsuccessful attempt to curb antigovernment protests. Technicians reportedly cut off almost all international traffic flowing through a tiny number of portals, while ISPs, particularly state-owned Telecom Egypt, removed the routes to Egypt’s networks from global routing tables—the mechanism that provides pathways for users’ computers to connect to requested websites. The operation was accomplished within the span of one hour.
The Egyptian case demonstrates that at times of political unrest, authoritarian leaders do not hesitate to exploit infrastructural controls to protect their rule, even if it causes massive disruptions to economic activity and personal communications. Several other instances of this “kill switch” phenomenon have occurred in recent years. In 2007, at Countries with at least the height of a wave of popular protests led by Buddhist monks in partially centralized and Burma, state-run ISPs cut off the country’s internet connection government-controlled from September 27 to October 4. More recently, from July internet connections:
to May 2010, the Chinese authorities severed all connections to Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, the northwestern region of Xinjiang while security forces carried Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, out mass arrests in the wake of ethnic violence. Local government Ethiopia, Iran, Jordan, websites and other content hosted within Xinjiang remained Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Tunisia, accessible, but the region’s 20 million residents were cut off from Turkey, Venezuela, Vietnam, outside information and a range of services used daily by Zimbabwe individuals and businesses—including e-mail, instant messaging, and blog-hosting.
In addition to outright shutdowns, a centralized, state-controlled internet infrastructure facilitates two other types of restrictions: the deliberate slowing of connection speeds and the imposition of a nationwide system of filtering and surveillance. During opposition protests in Iran in the summer of 2009, authorities sharply reduced the speed of network traffic, making it difficult to conduct basic online activities like opening e-mail messages. Uploading a single image could take up to an hour. In early 2011, as protests began flaring up across the Middle East, the Bahraini government selectively slowed down internet connections at newspaper offices, hotels, and homes.
The prime example of a centralized filtering system is China’s so-called Great Firewall, but other countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, also use such systems to enforce nationwide censorship and monitor dissident activity.
Offline Coercion, Online Manipulation Alter Available Information Rather than relying exclusively on technological sophistication to control internet content, many governments employ cruder but nevertheless effective tactics to delete and manipulate politically or socially relevant information. These methods are often ingenious in their simplicity, in that their effects are more difficult to track and counteract than ordinary blocking.
One common method is for a government official to contact a content producer or host, for example by telephone, and request that particular information be deleted from the internet. In some cases, individual bloggers or webmasters are threatened with various reprisals should they refuse the request. Increasingly, governments and their supporters are also taking advantage of OVERVIEW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES, INNOVATIVE REPRESSION FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net international hosting platforms’ complaint mechanisms to have user-generated content removed.
Over the past two years, activists from China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Tunisia found that their YouTube videos or Facebook accounts had been removed or disabled after complaints were filed, apparently by regime supporters. In several of these instances, the content was restored once the problem was brought to the hosting company’s attention, but the threat of a blanket ban is sometimes enough to induce large websites to meet governments’ specific deletion demands.
A certain set of countries have laws in place to hold content providers and hosts legally responsible for what others post on their sites. Such provisions effectively force the site owner to screen all user-generated content and delete what might be deemed offensive by the authorities.