The Global Internet Censorship Phenomenon

By:  |  Category: Blog Thursday, October 31st, 2019  |  No Comments

The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) has been monitoring internet censorship around the world since 2012. OONI is a free software, global observation network for detecting censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation on the internet. “They measure what’s being blocked or removed, and why.”

Now, if you’re American the idea of internet censorship is almost non-existent.

As US citizens we have access to just about everything because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution “protects the freedom of speech and expression against all levels of government censorship”. The amendment includes protection against government censorship of the information highway that is the World Wide Web.

Other parts of the world? Not so lucky. 

A story shared on Cnet.com details a man’s experience in Ethiopia leaving the Bole Addis Ababa International Airport. Moses Karanja couldn’t pay his driver using the ride-hail App, and neither he nor the driver knew how much his trip should cost. Why? Internet access controlled by the state had been shuttered, rendering the APP useless. The outage was a result of political unrest in June following multiple assassinations in the country. Although several parts of the internet were restored days later,

Karanja used OONI and their resources to determine the outage reached Facebook, Facebook Messenger and the web version of WhatsApp and these remained blocked until August.

OONI is just one of several efforts to track and monitor this censorship on a global level.

Internet censorship isn’t always as obvious as the shutdown in Ethiopia, governments can target specific websites, or filter for certain images and videos, disabling the news feeds that transmit them. Even social media companies removing content is censorship, just in a subtler form.

OONI’s founder Arturo Filasto, says there are many parallel internets, “Censorship means the content you can see online varies depending on where you are in the world.” Volunteers (in more than 200 countries) submit network signals that combined, can point to interference. Even a 404 error message or odd pop-up windows helps map, measure, and track what’s been blocked or removed and why.

How does this monitoring work? Open-Source OONI Probe software is installed on apps, tablets or computers and periodically pings and transmits a preset list of websites to discover which are “blocked, throttled, or redirected.” This helps track concerns on censorship, and have a clear snapshot of the internet in a specific point, time, and place. It’s history in the making.

The global internet censorship dilemma? Knowing when to remove content based on the spread of violent content or terrorism, versus bringing attention to human rights violations. Human rights organizations like Witness, train activists to watch for takedowns of their videos, while some projects track those takedowns, archive to store and vet the videos, and then make them available to human rights organizations.

Censorship can be a momentary network laps, monetary loss, or a huge inconvenience, but it’s a global phenomenon that we will only see continued as our world plunges deeper into the technological age.   

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Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/7wM79kjQxKQ

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