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
- Study: North Korea, China, and Russia top internet censorship charts - The Next Web - January 18th, 2020
- Aichi Triennale Exhibition Will Be Restaged in Taiwan Following Censorship Controversy - Artforum - January 18th, 2020
- Internet Censorship In Africa Is A Trend In Africa - What To Expect In 2020 - WeeTracker Media - January 18th, 2020
- Israel's 'censor in chief': The activist who manages to silence the left - Haaretz - January 18th, 2020
- Facts and Facebook: It shouldn't censor political ads - The Union Leader - January 18th, 2020
- Berkley Library Cautions against Censorship after God Crossed Out of Mystery Novel Oakland County Times - Oakland County 115 News - January 18th, 2020
- 'Push back against those who abuse the law to silence the media' Index on Censorship - The Shift News - January 18th, 2020
- SPLC Pushes Big Tech Censorship in the Name of Fighting White Supremacy - PJ Media - January 18th, 2020
- Is Hulu censoring the Iran episode of Anthony Bourdain's 'Parts Unknown'? - The Daily Dot - January 18th, 2020
- AI Censors and 8 Other Things You Didn't Know About Tencent - Motley Fool - December 28th, 2019
- Iran censors internet on the eve of new protests - New York Post - December 28th, 2019
- Dear 2020: Piyush Mishras open letter to the coming year - Hindustan Times - December 28th, 2019
- Sara Lee Responds to SNLs Sexually Charged Sketch, Reverses Instagram Censorship: We Are Taking It in Stride - Sunriseread - December 28th, 2019
- Mr X tries to censor reports of sexual assault allegations - The Times - December 28th, 2019
- YouTube Censoring Crypto-Related Videos Crypto.IQ | Bitcoin and Investment News from Inside Experts You Can Trust - CryptoIQ - December 28th, 2019
- Will new claims of censorship threaten TikToks presence in Europe? - 150sec - December 22nd, 2019
- Jason Derulo's "Cats" Costars Revealed It Wasn't Just His Bulge That Had To Be Removed - BuzzFeed News - December 22nd, 2019
- Heritage Foundation Responds to Tucker Carlson's False Accusations on Big Tech - Heritage.org - December 22nd, 2019
- They want to silence you and mebut we stand up against the censorship - Mondoweiss - December 22nd, 2019
- Eddie Murphy Sneaks a Curse Word Past the Censors on Saturday Night Live - Comicbook.com - December 22nd, 2019
- China censors viral clips of a rare university protest after the academy downgrades 'freedom of thought' - The Telegraph - December 22nd, 2019
- Yuliett Torres Wore A Shorts That She Challenged Censorship - Sunriseread - December 22nd, 2019
- The Statistics of Censorship - Book Riot - December 18th, 2019
- The year art censorship came back in style - Washington Examiner - December 18th, 2019
- The Aichi Triennale Had a Lot of Problems. A New Government Report Reflects on What Went Wrong - artnet News - December 18th, 2019
- Football is sliding into a bubble of self-censorship and even Jurgen Klopp has gone quiet - inews - December 18th, 2019
- There's a new free speech crisis gripping the worldand governments aren't helping - Prospect - December 18th, 2019
- Dems have a plan to fight Trump on climate censorship - Michigan Advance - December 18th, 2019
- On International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, We Must Look Closely at the Results of FOSTA - EFF - December 18th, 2019
- As Facebook caves to Singapore censorship, the writing is on the wall - The Interpreter - December 3rd, 2019
- WeChat users in the US say the app is censoring their messages about Hong Kong - Business Insider - December 3rd, 2019
- Ohio University refuses to apologize for unconstitutional censorship of innocent students - The College Fix - December 3rd, 2019
- This is why you shouldn't use Apple's highlighter tool to censor sensitive info - The Next Web - December 3rd, 2019
- Meet the artist building a crypto-inspired art museum on the blockchain - The Next Web - December 3rd, 2019
- Zuckerberg on Chinese censorship: Is that the internet we want? - TechCrunch - October 23rd, 2019
- Report On Global Social Media Censorship Shows Russia, India, And Turkey Are Still Leading The Censor Pack - Techdirt - October 23rd, 2019
- Blizzard Gaming Boycott Is The Tip Of The Chinese Censorship Iceberg - The Federalist - October 23rd, 2019
- The night the censors drove old 'Dixie' down - Washington Examiner - October 23rd, 2019
- Seems censorship is in place in Bengal: Governer Jagdeep Dhankhar - Economic Times - October 23rd, 2019
- Netflix Dodges Bid to Halt Release of 'The Laundromat' - Hollywood Reporter - October 23rd, 2019
- China Star Wars censorship: Why the rumors aren't true - Inverse - October 23rd, 2019
- Netflix, Amazon And Other OTT Platforms Face Censorship Threat In India - Inc42 Media - October 23rd, 2019
- Banned Books Week at Harvard Law: How censorship leaves us in the dark - Harvard - Harvard Law School News - October 16th, 2019
- Aichi Triennale Artist Minouk Lim Speaks Out on Art World Censorship and How the Exhibition Could Be 'Reborn' - - ARTnews - October 16th, 2019
- Microsoft Wants to Censor Xbox Live Voice Chat in Real Time - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- Internet censorship in Sudan: Rethinking laws and tactics that served an authoritarian regime - Global Voices - October 16th, 2019
- Bitcoin Is a Weapon for Free Speech in the Face of Government and Corporate Censorship - Bitcoin News - October 16th, 2019
- Houston Rockets-NBA Controversy Over Chinese Censorship Reveals Growing Corporate Trend - The Texan - October 16th, 2019
- Radhika Apte on censorship of web content: We are all so extreme, we are trying to ban everything - The Indian Express - October 16th, 2019
- Blizzard Lowers Penalty on Hong Kong Streamer, Says China Uninvolved in Censorship - ExtremeTech - October 14th, 2019
- Following Censorship Controversy at Aichi Triennale, Artists Discuss Why They Removed Their Workand Then Reinstated It - - ARTnews - October 14th, 2019
- China censors a lot, from Winnie the Pooh to the NBA - CNN - October 14th, 2019
- Lets Not Take Cues From a Country That Bans Winnie the Pooh - The New York Times - October 14th, 2019
- I'm a Blizzard gamer. I am boycotting them over their Hong Kong censorship - The Guardian - October 14th, 2019
- Chinese Rappers Take On the Surveillance State - The Atlantic - October 14th, 2019
- Blizzard Hong Kong controversy: what happened and why it matters - Vox.com - October 14th, 2019
- Here's a list of companies taking the knee to Chinese censorship - TweakTown - October 14th, 2019
- The Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath of Gods Debuts with Heavy Censorship of Blood and Gore - Bounding Into Comics - October 14th, 2019
- Democrats accuse DeVos of ignoring claims of censorship, civil rights violations at Liberty University - Lynchburg News and Advance - October 14th, 2019
- American businesses shouldn't give in to Chinese censorship - Washington Times - October 14th, 2019
- The Athletic Outrages White Men Everywhere By Censoring Their Opinions On China - Deadspin - October 14th, 2019
- New Xbox message moderation will automatically censor offensive content - MSPoweruser - October 14th, 2019
- Censors Silenced Eric Hedin, but They Couldn't Silence David Gelernter: Here's Why It Matters - Discovery Institute - October 14th, 2019
- Chinese censorship: what is banned? - The Week UK - October 14th, 2019
- Lady Chatterley's censor: Almost 60 years ago, a court case looked to save us from ourselves - The Big Smoke Australia - October 14th, 2019
- 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