Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Oppressing the Passive Majority
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, October 10, 2016 --
Avoiding internet censorship is easier than ever. Fortunately for despots, most people don't bother.
When Turkish President Erdogan came out on top of a failed coup attempt in July, a backlash was inevitable. A resurgent strongman cracked down on dissent, with opposition newspapers and websites being among the first victims. This week, the country has blocked access to seemingly innocuous file sharing sites including Dropbox and Google Drive, in an effort to stop leaked emails from a government agency.1
Such a move is unsurprising for Turkey, which has been attempting to censor the internet since long before this summer's coup attempt. Orders from the regime's compliant courts have co-opted Twitter and Facebook to block access to hashtag and pages associated with Kurdish and other dissident groups, forcing the government's enemies to vary their usernames to circumvent the censorship.2 Websites are blocked by government poisoning of DNS servers, the machines that translate friendly website names into numeric addresses. This has led many websites to regularly increment numbers of the end of their names so that Turkish web surfers can guess where to find them next despite government blocks.
Fortunately for Turks, there is a way to escape this repression -- the virtual private network. By logging into such a system with their laptop or mobile phone, Turkish residents can send their internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel that routes their surfing to a different country like Sweden or the United States without such censorship. The internet metrics company Global Web Index estimates that 36 percent of Turks use VPNs to circumvent censorship -- one of the highest rates in the world.3
Unfortunately, such efforts are increasingly necessary. China has long been infamous for blocking websites with its "Great Firewall". But in recent years, more countries have joined in the game. Ethiopia, hardly a technically sophisticated nation, began blocking websites with its own firewall a few years ago, periodically blocking access to sites like Facebook for such trivial reasons as keeping students from being distracted during exams.4 During violent anti-government protests earlier this month, it took the more draconian step of entirely shutting down the country's internet access5 something that would work even against VPN users.
Sadly, government censorship of the internet is increasingly common, not just in third world dictatorships like Ethiopia, but in places like Turkey and China. Even in more liberal Western democracies censorship exists. Germany, for example, forces Google to filter search results for sites denying the holocaust6 and in the United States, airline search engines for years blacklisted the existence of flights to Cuba.7
The use of Virtual Private Networks to circumvent internet censorship is a great tool, particularly for dissidents. But even in countries with the most widespread use like Turkey, Indonesia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, penetration never hits 50 percent. This means that government censorship is effective against most people. And when the people are used to legitimize regimes though the ballot box, government control of the information sent the majority of voters can certainly sway elections. Given that VPN subscriptions take time, effort, and money to configure and keep going, many people will never take that extra step.
While this is bad news for civil society increasingly driven by the online exchange of information, it is hardly worse than circumstances 25 years ago. In those days before the World Wide Web, newspapers, radio, and television broadcasts were much more easily censored by authoritarian regimes. And while determined citizens could use short wave radio and smuggled periodicals to access the truth, those circumvention efforts were far more difficult than paying for a five dollar monthly VPN subscription.
The sad truth is that the internet has failed to free the passive majority from government censorship. For the determined minority, however, access to information could never be more free.
3. GlobalWebIndex, Four Things to Know About VPN Users, Tuesday, February 2 2016
4. BBC News, Ethiopia Blocks Facebook and Other Social Media for Exams, July 11, 2016
5. Washington Post, Ethiopia imposes State of Emergency as Unrest Intensifies, October 10. 2016
6. Zittrain, Jonathan and Edelman, Benjamin, Localized Google Search Result Exclusions, October 26, 2002
7. DavidGYoung.com, Censorship American Style, March 4, 2015