90 Miles From Tyranny : Top 10 Countries Censoring the Web

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Top 10 Countries Censoring the Web

When the World Wide Web was created in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee (not to be confused with the Internet itself, which is the core network developed many years earlier), its main objective was to enable the free exchange of information via interlinked hypertext documents.
web censorship

Almost 20 years later, that objective has been accomplished on most parts of the world, but not in all of them. Some countries are trying hard to keep an iron hand over the flow of information that takes place on the Web. Below you will find the most controversial ones.

10. Pakistan

The rundown
Pakistan started censoring the web in 2000, when the main target was anti-Islamic content. Over the time, it seems, they liked the possibility to control the Internet traffic, and have been increasing the scope of their censorship system ever since.
How does the censorship work?
There are only three international gateways on the country, and all of them are controlled by the Pakistan Telecommunication Company. The government, therefore, is able to monitor and block most unwanted traffic using filtering software (although their technical apparatus is not sophisticated).
Internet service providers are also required by law to monitor the activity of their clients to make sure that they are not accessing prohibited websites.
What kind of content is blocked?
In the first years of the web censorship in Pakistan, the main target was anti-Islamic content and websites that were related to political autonomy movements (e.g., the Balochi one). In 2003, however, the Pakistan Telecommunication Company declared that they would also officially block all pornographic websites.
In 2006 mainstream western websites, including Wikipedia and several newspapers, got blocked as well. The intensification of the censorship was propelled by the episode of the Danish cartoons that contained images of the Prophet Muhammad.

9. Burma

The rundown
Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, is a country characterized by severe human rights problems, so it would be hard to expect an open and reliable Internet adoption. It is estimated that less than 1% of its population has access to the web, and this happens via a handful of cybercafes, and always under tight surveillance.
How does the censorship work?
Burma relies on a heavy regulatory framework to control the access to the Internet. Computers that want to access the web need to be registered with the Myanmar Posts and Telecom company, and a fee must be paid as well.
The price of the Internet connections is also prohibitive for the largest part of the population, and broadband connections are almost nonexistent among the general public.
Additionally, they also have a filtering system at the ISP level, targeting mainly independent media websites.
What kind of content is blocked?
Myanmar has an official Intranet, which is the only content available for many of its Internet users (the ones using dial-up connections). Only a small number of pre-approved websites are present there.
Free email services are also blocked, so people must use the state-owned service which is always monitored for keywords and sensitive content.
The main target of the censorship is political content that might go against the current government ideology.

8. Yemen

The rundown
The Yemen government is very hostile to the freedom of the media in general, and the Internet is no exception. Political and social issues are always under their radar, although the digital infrastructure for the censorship here is not as advanced as in some of the other countries on our list.
How does the censorship work?
The underdeveloped telecom infrastructure on the country acts as a natural obstacle to the free flow of information over the Internet. Just like Burma, less than 1% of Yemen’s popular can access the Internet.
The ones who are able to pay for an Internet subscription face severe limitations nevertheless. Service providers often prohibit the access to audio and video content, for example, because it would put an excessive load on their network.
The largest ISP on the country, controlled by the government, also makes use of content filtering software to block specific types of websites. It is interesting to note that they only have a limited number of user licenses for the software, and if many people connect at the same time, some will get an unfiltered version of the web!
What kind of content is blocked?
The censorship in Yemen is concerned mainly with blocking websites and material attacking the Yemeni revolution and it is political regimen.
Additionally, any website publishing anti-Islamic and pornographic content is also blocked on most Internet connections.

7. North Korea

The rundown
North Korea has managed to accomplish a really tough task given our time: they kept the Internet outside of the country borders! For a country that has no independent media at all, however, it makes sense.
How does the censorship work?
Basically there is no Internet in North Korea. No servers. No service providers. Nothing. Zip.
Only a handful elite members of the government have an Internet connection, and they have it via a satellite link that is connected with German servers.
Part of the population is trying to escape this iron curtain by using 3G mobile phones and Chinese connections. This is not an effective solution, though, and even when it works the users would be subject to the Chinese censorship on the other end….
What kind of content is blocked?
Everything. North Korea didn’t even have a top level domain extension until a while ago. Now they do, and there are two websites registered on it. Both governmental….
Truth be told, they do have an Intranet which is accessible to a tiny part of the population. Those amount to 50 or so web pages, however, and they are filled with content proclaiming the wonders of Kim Jung Il and his political ideals.

6. Syria

The rundown
The Syrian government admits that it automatically blocks websites with pornographic content and with politically sensitive information. In reality the situation is much worse, and many journalists from around the world consider Syria to be one of the most repressive countries as far as the Internet is concerned.
How does the censorship work?
Syria’s first barrier to the information coming via the web are the social-economic problems of the country. It is estimated that less than 2% of the whole population subscribe to Internet services.
On top of that, they also exert a strong control over all the Internet Service Provides. Crazy as it sounds, Internet users there are only allowed to use the the port 80 (i.e., the one used by your browser).
If you want to use other types of connections you need to have an authorization and pay a fee. Want to setup a website and upload your files via FTP? Perhaps use Skype for VoIP? Forget it!
What kind of content is blocked?
Any topic criticizing the current political ideology is heavily targeted by the censors. Additionally, religious and pornographic content gets blocked at ISP level.
Syrya also blocks some mainstream websites like Hotmail, and there are reports that many blogs hosted on free services like Blogger were blocked in the past.

5. Cuba

The rundown
The Reporters Without Borders organization considers Cuba “one of the world’s 10 most repressive countries” when it comes to online content.
The local access to the Internet is so controlled, and the punishment to dissent so severe, that they managed to create a state of self-censorship, where people don’t even try to access prohibited material out of fear.
How does the censorship work?
The Cuban government owns all the Internet Service Providers in the country, so they have access to all the traffic that goes around. By employing a filtering software, they are able to block sensitive information.
Both websites and email messages get controlled before people can have access to them.
If that was not enough, the economic and social problems on the country make it generally difficult for anyone to have access to the Internet in the first place. The sales of personal computers used to be illegal on the country until some months ago for example.
What kind of content is blocked?
The main target of the Cuban censorship is political content that is against its socialist ideology.
In 1996 they already had a law banning from the Internet any material “in violation of Cuban society’s moral principles or the country’s laws.”

4. United Arab Emirates

The rundown
The United Arab Emirates is one of the most connected countries in the Middle East. Despite that fact, the country tries to control heavily the flow of information on the web. Virtually any website containing ideas or information that goes against the political, moral or religious values of the country is blocked.
How does the censorship work?
All the telephone and Internet services used to be provided by the state-owned company Etisalat. In 2006 The United Arab Emirates started liberalizing the telecommunications market, but they still have a strong hand on it.
They are therefore able to control and filter most of the Internet traffic. Curiously enough, in 2002 a survey found out that 60% of the Internet subscribers approved the filtering of online content at ISP level.
What kind of content is blocked?
The United Arab Emirates is concerned with protecting the moral and religious values of the country mainly.
As such, they extensively filter websites that contain pornography, that are related to alcohol and drug use, gay and lesbian issues, online dating and gambling.

3. Saudi Arabia

The rundown
Saudi Arabia introduced the Internet on its country many years after other Arab countries, exactly because they didn’t know how they would be able to control the content. Today they have a complex censorship system in place, and they even have laws criminalizing the access to websites that violate Saudi laws or Islamic values.
How does the censorship work?
The censorship is carried by the Internet Service Unit (ISU), which controls all the gateways of the Internet Service Providers on the country.
There is basically no Internet specific law on Saudi Arabia, so it falls under the press law, which states that the all publications need to have a governmental approval before publishing anything (i.e., they can shut pretty much anything down at will).
The technical part of the censorship is handled with the SmartFilter software.
What kind of content is blocked?
The Saudi Arabia government states that is blocks around 400,000 websites from around the world. Their main target anti-Islamic content, although pornography, gambling and women rights are also usually restricted

2. Iran

The rundown
The censorship of the web in Iran started several years ago, and today they are one of the most efficient countries on this respect. The target? All non-Islamic websites, making Iran probably the country with the most extensive web censorship in the world.
How does the censorship work?
Iran has an advanced semantic filtering system in place that identifies specific keywords and terms. Working parallel with this system they have an official committee that is responsible for identifying and reporting any website that violates the Iranian laws and regulations.
The government is also trying to slow down, and sometimes even to ban the spread of broadband Internet connections on the country.
The objective is to “protect” its citizens from western cultural influences (e.g. music, video and movies).
What kind of content is blocked?
In 2006 the Iranian government was already blocking the access to several popular western websites, including YouTube, Amazon and Wikipedia.
Today, anything that contains sex, politics and religion is not allowed. The number of blocked websites is estimated at over 10 million.
There are actual laws that require the media and online content providers to produce material goes promotes the state objectives and the Islamic culture as a whole.
Over 100 print and online publications have been shut down in the past for not complying with those laws.

1. China

The rundown
If you think that The Great Wall of China was already an incredible thing, you should take a look at what critics from around the world call “The Great Firewall of China.” China has undoubtedly the most sophisticated censorship system in the world.
In the past they have been able to block all sorts of unfriendly websites, and even to silence movements like the pro-Tibet protest as if they never existed.
And don’t think that only small bloggers are subject to China’s power. Even the almighty Google was forced to cooperate by creating a censored version of its search engine to be used by the Chinese.
How does the censorship work?
The Great Firewall of China, contrary to other censorship systems, is decentralized and flexible. They don’t target whole domain extensions (i.e. .com or .us) or specific types of websites (i.e. pornographic websites), but rather keywords.
In order to accomplish the herculean task of monitoring what the 220 million Chinese Internet users are doing, they have one of the biggest network of servers in the world, and a human task force that is estimated at over 30,000 heads.
The government also monitors closely the activity of Internet service provides and Internet cafes. Over the last couple of years over 2,000 Internet cafes were indeed closed, and very few of them were able to re-open.
What kind of content is blocked?
Politically sensitive content is the main target of the censorship in China. Hot topics include Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. Many western content portals like BBC and Voice of America, for instance, are blocked by Chinese ISPs.
Pornography and terrorism related websites are also blocked.
Apart from blocking websites and restricting the access to specific types of websites, however, the Chinese government also invests a lot of money to promote the state-owned websites and to use the Internet as a propaganda vehicle.

Bonus: Australia

The rundown
Discovering that countries like Iran or Yemen are censoring the web is not a big surprise. Most forms of independent media are already restricted there, and their levels of human rights are among the lowest in the world.
But what if we told you that Australia, one of the richest countries in the world, is also trying to censor websites inside its borders? Now that is scary!
How does the censorship work?
In 2007 a bill passed giving the federal police the power to block the access to any website. They already had a filtering system is place, but it was very limited in scope.
Many privacy groups and critics from the around the world claimed that this decision will directly threaten the freedom of speech on the Australian web.
What kind of content is blocked?
The government claimed that the police will be blocking mainly phishing and terrorism related websites. The problem is that the law brings a much broader definition for the potential targets: basically they can block any content that encourages, incites or facilitates criminal activity.
Some of the facts provided on this article come from the Internet Enemies section of the Reporters Without Borders site, and from the Access Denied report from the OpenNet Initiative. We recommend that you visit them for more information on web censorship in general.

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