ROME Last year, during a wave of deadly political protests in Ethiopia, the government blocked more than 15 media websites and the smartphone chat application WhatsApp. Sites promoting freedom of expression and LGBTQ+ rights, as well as those offering censorship-circumvention tools, such as Tor and Psiphon, were also suppressed.
All of this was uncovered through the use of software called ooniprobe, which is designed to measure networks and detect Internet censorship. Ooniprobe was developed more than five years ago by the Tor-supported Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), with which I work, in order to boost transparency, accountability, and oversight of Internet censorship. The software is free and open source, meaning that anyone can use it. And, indeed, tens of thousands of ooniprobe users from more than 190 countries have already done just that.
Those users have contributed to the collection of millions of network measurements, all of which are published on OONI Explorer, arguably the largest publicly available resource on Internet censorship. Thanks to their use of ooniprobe, we uncovered the extent of last years wave of censorship in Ethiopia, as well as details of many other cases of censorship elsewhere in the world.
In Uganda, local groups used ooniprobe during last years general election, when the government blocked social media. Ooniprobes network-measurement data not only confirmed the governments action; it also uncovered which sites were blocked and the different methods used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to implement censorship.
Ooniprobe also came in handy in Malaysia in 2015. Facing accusations that he had transferred nearly $700 million from the state investment fund 1MDB to his personal bank accounts, Prime Minister Najib Razak attempted to block news outlets and blogs that reported on the scandal. It was ooniprobes network-measurement software that enabled Malaysian civil-society groups to collect data that serve as evidence of the blocking.
Of course, censorship is not always carried out to protect the politically powerful; it can also be used to reinforce social and cultural norms. In Indonesia, for example, low social tolerance for homosexuality may have played a role in the blocking of numerous LGBTQ+ websites, even though the country does not officially restrict LGBTQ+ rights. Similar factors may have influenced efforts to block sites perceived as overly critical of Islam.
In Thailand, ISPs have, in the last three years, blocked access to a number of sites that are perceived to be offensive toward the countrys royal family. But, here, there is a legal justification: Thailands strict prohibition against lse-majest protects the royal familys most senior members from insult or threat. Other cases of legally justified Internet censorship include the blocking of sexually explicit websites in countries where pornography is prohibited.
Then there are cases where the motivation for censorship is unclear. Why, for example, has an online dating site been blocked in Malaysia? In some countries, ISPs appear to be censoring sites at their own discretion. According to ooniprobe data, multiple Thai ISPs simultaneously blocked access to different types of websites from news outlets to Wikileaks to pornography indicating that they likely received vague orders from authorities.
Before ooniprobe, such censorship was difficult to detect, leading to a lack of accountability, with governments and ISPs often denying any and all involvement. Even in cases where governments announce official lists of blocked sites, they may leave some targets off. Likewise, ISPs may not always comply with official orders to lift blocks. Vimeo and Reddit, for example, were recently found to be blocked in some networks in Indonesia, even though the official ban on those sites was lifted more than two years ago.
With ooniprobe, users are not only able to expose Internet censorship; they can also acquire substantial detail about how, when, where, and by whom the censorship is being implemented. OONIs Web-Connectivity Test, for example, is designed to examine whether access to websites is blocked through DNS tampering, TCP/IP blocking, or a transparent HTTP proxy.
Other ooniprobe tests are designed to examine the accessibility of chat apps namely, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger within networks, as well as that of censorship-circumvention tools, such as Tor, Psiphon, and Lantern. OONI also provides software tests that uncover the presence of systems (middle boxes) that could potentially be responsible for censorship or surveillance.
The depth of OONI data supports much-needed accountability and oversight. Lawyers can use OONI data to assess the legality of Internet censorship in their countries, and potentially introduce it as evidence in court cases. Journalists, researchers, and human-rights defenders can use the data to inform their work as well. And censorship-circumvention projects like Tor can use OONI findings on emergent censorship events to shape their tools and strategies.
OONI data can help enrich public discourse about the legality, necessity, and proportionality of Internet censorship. That makes it a critical tool for safeguarding human rights on the Internet and beyond.
Todays media landscape is littered with landmines: open hostility by US President Donald Trump, increased censorship in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Zambia, growing financial pressure, and the challenge of “fake news.” In Press Released, Project Syndicate, in partnership with the European Journalism Centre, provides a truly global platform to frame and stimulate debate about the myriad challenges facing the press today.
Measuring the Internet for Freedom – Project Syndicate
- 10+ Years of Activists Silenced: Internet Intermediaries' Long History of Censorship - EFF - August 25th, 2017
- Cambridge University Press battles censorship in China - The Economist - August 25th, 2017
- At Beijing book fair, publishers admit self-censorship - Yahoo News - August 25th, 2017
- Delingpole: Thomas Wictor Is the Latest Victim of Google Censorship - Breitbart News - August 25th, 2017
- Tech Companies and Censorship: Where Should We Draw The Line? - Inc.com - August 22nd, 2017
- Concerns About Censorship Soar As Russia Detains Director - Forward - August 22nd, 2017
- Why India's Battle Against Film Censorship Isn't Over Yet | IndieWire - IndieWire - August 22nd, 2017
- Ban of white nationalist website raising fears of government censorship - Washington Times - August 22nd, 2017
- Grappling Championships Use Bitcoin To Circumvent Censorship ... - Bitcoin News (press release) - August 20th, 2017
- Tech Censorship of White Supremacists Draws Criticism From Within Industry - Wall Street Journal (subscription) - August 20th, 2017
- Cambridge University Press censorship 'exposes Xi Jinping's authoritarian shift' - The Guardian - August 20th, 2017
- Alt-Tech Bad Boy Cody Wilson Explains Hatreon, an Alternative to Online Censorship - PJ Media - August 20th, 2017
- More Internet Censorship - National Review - August 18th, 2017
- judge Nap: Censorship Worse Than Hate | The Daily Caller - The Daily Caller - August 18th, 2017
- Keep the Internet's Backbone Free From Censorship - Bloomberg - August 18th, 2017
- Vegas radio station apologizes to Golden Knights for censorship - Yahoo Sports - August 18th, 2017
- Team Trump accuses CNN of censorship - Washington Times - August 18th, 2017
- FCC Censorship Rules Vary for Broadcast, Cable, and Streaming - Variety - August 16th, 2017
- The architecture of censorship - The Hindu - August 16th, 2017
- [OPINION] Withdrawal of Mandela book nothing short of censorship - Eyewitness News - August 16th, 2017
- Trump campaign accuses CNN of censorship - The Hill - August 15th, 2017
- Chinese Censorship Hits the Middle East - Raddington Report (blog) - August 15th, 2017
- The saga of CBFC: Censor Board chairpersons who stood out over the years - Hindustan Times - August 14th, 2017
- The alt-right supporters of James Damore, the fired Google engineer who authored the so-called anti-diversity memo ... - Quartz - August 13th, 2017
- Artwork Mocking Google's Censorship Just Started Popping Up In California - The Federalist - August 13th, 2017
- OPINION | Trump's climate change censorship puts us all at risk - The Hill (blog) - August 13th, 2017
- How to fight Trump's climate science censorship - The Hill (blog) - August 11th, 2017
- The Price of Censorship for China's Internet Giants - Wall Street Journal (subscription) - August 11th, 2017
- Conservative And Independent YouTube Channels Hit By Censorship And Demonetization - The Daily Caller - August 11th, 2017
- The Head Of Indian Film Censorship Has Been Fired - Birth.Movies.Death. - August 11th, 2017
- Lyft Sparks Censorship Fears With Email Asking Drivers to Speak to Company Before Media - NBC Bay Area - August 11th, 2017
- Diamond and Silk accuse YouTube of 'censorship' after company demonetized '95%' of their videos - Twitchy - August 11th, 2017
- Anti-environment right shifts tactics: From climate-change denial to censorship and intimidation - Salon - August 10th, 2017
- Lyft drivers fear censorship after internal email about speaking to press - San Francisco Examiner - August 10th, 2017
- 'Censorship is for losers': Assange offers fired Google engineer job at WikiLeaks - RT - August 10th, 2017
- Stabenow questions 'censorship' of 'climate change' - The Detroit News - August 9th, 2017
- Wikileaks' Julian Assange Just Offered Google's Fired Anti-Diversity Employee a Job - Fortune - August 9th, 2017
- Jonathan Zimmerman column: Liberals worried about censorship forget about Sambo and the KKK - Richmond.com - August 9th, 2017
- Fearing Trump Censorship, Govt. Scientists Leak Alarming Climate Report - Common Dreams - August 9th, 2017
- 'Censorship is for losers': WikiLeaks offers fired Google engineer a job - BetaNews - August 9th, 2017
- Federal government email suggests censorship over 'climate change' - Washington Examiner - August 8th, 2017
- Judd Apatow on Calling HBO's 'Confederate' Backlash 'Censorship': 'I Used the Wrong Word' - TheWrap - August 8th, 2017
- No 'Censorship': Judd Apatow Defends HBO Drama 'Confederate' from SJWs - Breitbart News - August 8th, 2017
- YouTube Moves To Censor Controversial Content Brings ADL On Board As Flagger - Mintpress News (blog) - August 8th, 2017
- Comic Chatbot Errors in China Mask Serious Corporate Caving on Censorship - TheStreet.com - August 6th, 2017
- Nico Hulkenberg shrugs off F1 'Halo' device censorship | Autoweek - Autoweek - August 5th, 2017
- Apple CEO Cook Defends Move to Censor Chinese Apps - Fortune - August 5th, 2017
- Apple, Amazon help China curb the use of anti-censorship tools - Washington Post - August 4th, 2017
- Anti-Social Media: Anti-Semitism and Censorship on the Rise - Townhall - August 4th, 2017
- China's Internet Censors Play a Tougher Game of Cat and Mouse - New York Times - August 3rd, 2017
- On censorship of 'Confederate,' it's 'Satanic Verses' deja vu - Washington Examiner - August 3rd, 2017
- China Holds Drill to Shut Down 'Harmful' Websites - Fortune - August 3rd, 2017
- Should the Koala Bear the Brunt of Censorship? - Cato Institute (blog) - August 3rd, 2017
- Why are so many Americans okay with corporations bowing to Chinese censorship? - The Week Magazine - August 3rd, 2017
- Apple Caved to China, Just Like Almost Every Other Tech Giant - WIRED - August 3rd, 2017
- Apple playing China's censorship game should make tech companies really nervous - Mashable - August 3rd, 2017
- Egyptian band beats censorship via YouTube - Al-Monitor - August 3rd, 2017
- Tim Cook Says Apple Had to Comply With Chinese Censors, and They'd Do It in the US Too - Gizmodo - August 2nd, 2017
- Popular YouTubers React To Censorship Of 'Controversial' Content - The Daily Caller - August 2nd, 2017
- Joining Apple, Amazon's China Cloud Service Bows to Censors - New York Times - August 2nd, 2017
- China's Censorship Powers Are More Dangerous Than You Know - The Federalist - August 2nd, 2017
- VPNs are a vital defence against censorship - but they're under attack - Amnesty International - August 1st, 2017
- ACLU sues Maryland, Kentucky governors over social media censorship - The Hill - August 1st, 2017
- Controversial Game House Party Returns to Steam After Some ... - DualShockers - August 1st, 2017
- Apple Bows To Chinese Regulators, Removes Internet Censorship-Defying Apps - Benzinga - August 1st, 2017
- Apple removes VPN apps in China as Beijing doubles down on censorship - CNBC - July 31st, 2017
- In China, internet censors are accidentally helping revive an invented Martian language - Quartz - July 31st, 2017
- Russian censorship law bans proxies and VPNs - Engadget - Engadget - July 31st, 2017
- Google's chief search engineer legitimizes new censorship algorithm - World Socialist Web Site - July 31st, 2017
- Apple removes China censorship-dodging apps from store, software makers say - MarketWatch - July 31st, 2017
- Apple Accused Of Removing Apps Used To Evade Censorship From Its China Store - NPR - July 29th, 2017
- Activists Say Censorship in North Korea Will Not Last - VOA Learning English - July 29th, 2017
- Cinema & censorship - The Hindu - July 28th, 2017
- Dozens of Venezuelan Journalists Flee Censorship and Violence to Report in Miami - Miami New Times - July 27th, 2017
- Book banning in Academy School District 20: Censorship or diligence? - Colorado Springs Gazette - July 27th, 2017
- 'Indecent' Playwright Paula Vogel Calls David Mamet's Talkback Ban 'Censorship' - Forward - July 27th, 2017
- Venezuelan Journalism Students Are Fighting Media Censorship. Here's How You Can Help - Remezcla (blog) - July 27th, 2017
- Professor Criticizes Beijing Censorship At University of Montana's 'Confucius Institute' - Newstalkkgvo - July 26th, 2017
- Pinkwashing Censorship: How the Chicago Dyke March Won its War on the Media - American Spectator - July 26th, 2017
- Google Wants Federal Judge To Nix Canadian Censorship Order - MediaPost Communications - July 26th, 2017