10 Authoritarian Government Attempts To Control The Internet
The Internet brings connectivity and freedom of access to millions around the world, helping to bring down repressive regimes and provide information censored in traditional media outlets. The authoritarian governments of the world haven’t taken this lying down.
In 2011, the repressive regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan launched an offensive against Internet freedom with the launch of Muloquot (meaning “dialogue”) to replace the use of other social media networks like Facebook or Odnoklassniki. The Muloquot network requires you to sign up with an Uzbek mobile phone number. If you don’t respond to an activation code within three days, your account is deleted.
Uzbekistan has been clamping down on Internet dissent since making an amendment in 2007 to a 1997 media law, which has allowed the government to jail bloggers for defaming the government. Muloquot provided much of the standard social-networking functionality like messaging, chat, pictures, and music uploads but was only marginally successful. Two other attempts, dubbed Vsetut and Sinfdosh, failed to gain much interest.
There is a fair amount of disconnect between the government and the average netizen over the value of national social media networks. The authorities see it as a way to protect national sovereignty against foreign meddling and the “seduction of the youth.” An official government statement explained it this way: “Protecting young people from the negative impacts of alien ideas and movements is an urgent task. These ideas spreads mainly through foreign social networks.”
These arguments haven’t been convincing. In a statement to Silk Road Reporters, one young Uzbek retorted, “Domestic social networks? Facebook gives me the opportunity to communicate with friends all over the world, not only in Uzbekistan. I want to be part of the world.”
In 2014, the Uzbek government launched a Twitter clone Bamboo, with the motto, “One Country, One Network!” Available in 14 languages, the system uses a remarkably familiar newsfeed interface with hashtags but allows for messages of up to 700 characters long.
Twitter had been cause for embarrassment when President Islam Karimov’s headstrong daughter Gulnara used the network to insult the country’s security, the security services, her mother, and her sister. In 2015, the authorities announced a fourth attempt to build an Uzbek-only social media network, so you have to give them points for tenacity.
9 Halal Internet
Iran’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has announced plans to create a “Halal” Internet for the Shiite population of Iran, a kind of national Internet separated from the World Wide Web. The system is meant to facilitate communication between the government and its citizens but has the side effect of making it easier for the government to block foreign websites containing offending or disruptive material. A blocked, censored website redirects you to the page shown above.
Although the concept was first announced in 2010, technical evidence of the development of Iran-only substitutes for popular websites, content filtering, and speed throttling for users accessing outside websites first emerged in 2012. Since then, Iranian Internet control systems have slowly increased in sophistication.
In 2013, Iran launched a national e-mail service, which forced users to register their full name, national identification number, home address, postcode, and their local post office at sign-up, and the service isn’t even free.
According to the semiofficial Mehr news agency, Iran’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mohammad Hasan Nami justified the system with some shaky logic: “For mutual interaction and communication between the government and the people, from now on every Iranian will receive a special e-mail address along with their postcode. . . . With the assignment of an e-mail address to every Iranian, government interactions with the people will take place electronically.”
In 2015, Iranian officials launched Yooz (meaning “cheetah” in Persian), an Iranian alternative to Western search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. They claim Yooz will provide faster search and cataloging for Iran-based and Persian-language websites, bypass US sanctions, and connect the academic world to Persian cyberspace. Yooz is also likely to be a tool for the Iranian authorities to more efficiently filter and monitor Internet content accessed in the country.
Recent reports have indicated, however, that more aggressive government action against Western social media tools like Instagram and WhatsApp have pushed more Iranian citizens to make use of more sophisticated work-arounds like Tor, VPNs, and Psiphon.
8 Operations And Analysis Center
In 2008, Belarus formed the Operations and Analysis Center (OAC), a government organ responsible for coordinating Internet surveillance operations and managing the national domain .by. OAC reports directly to President Alexander Lukashenko. Conflict between Belarusian netizens and the government dates back to 2001 when national telecommunications company Beltelecom blocked access to popular political websites, but since then the technical and legal control methods have become more effective.
In 2009, the Belarusian legislature passed Decree 60, increasing the state’s Internet policing powers. The law forces ISPs to block any website with illegal content without a court order, referring to two separate blacklists: one publicly available, one restricted to the government and ISPs. The decree also obliged Internet cafes to record the identities of their users by photographing or filming them and to keep the information for a year. In addition, the government uses defamation legislation to harass bloggers and online journalists and send them to prison.
The Belarus authorities have shown a lot of interest in acquiring foreign technology to help maintain control over the Internet. In 2009, they forced ISPs to pay for the installation of the Russian SORM surveillance system and keep user data for a year. In 2015, controversial Italian surveillance firm Hacking Team gave a demonstration of their malware infection software to OAC representatives, who were apparently impressed enough to be interested in buying it.
Only a small minority of North Korea’s elite has access to the wider World Wide Web, mostly elites in the government and military, propagandists and media workers, state-trained hackers, and researchers at educational institutions. A larger minority of the elite has access to a national Internet known as Kwangmyong (meaning “bright”), providing access to state media and a limited number of censored information sources pulled from the wider Internet, although chats and e-mails are closely monitored.
The role of the system is largely to spread information between universities, industry, and the government. The vast majority of the population doesn’t even have access to the national intranet, as purchasing a computer requires government permission and costs around three months of an average salary. North Korea has only 1,024 Internet Protocol addresses for a population of 25 million.
Despite the limits placed on the Internet for North Koreans within the country, the country has attempted to use social media to its own advantage. There is an active Twitter account for the pro–North Korea group Uriminzokkiri based in Japan, posting Korean-language propaganda aimed at the South and oversea Korean communities. Uriminzokkiri also has a YouTube channel where it uploads videos of North Korean news broadcasts and propaganda documentaries. These channels along with other websites are blocked in South Korea for illegal political content.
Meanwhile, North Korea fields a formidable army of hackers. In late 2014, Hewlett-Packard’s computer security unit did a deep study of North Korean cyberwarfare capabilities, noting that North Korean hackers have penetrated US military computer systems more than any other country and South Korean military targets on numerous occasions.
With little internal Internet infrastructure in North Korea, it is difficult to retaliate against such attacks. They even use online gaming to earn real money for the regime and launch malware attacks. In 2015, The Independent reported that a North Korean defector had warned that North Korean cyberattacks against infrastructure could “kill people and destroy cities.”
6 Cuban Intranet
The Obama administration criticized Cuba for having Internet penetration of a mere 5 percent, while Havana has boasted of having 23 percent of the population online. The difference comes down to the proportion of people who have access to the wider Internet versus those who are restricted to a nationwide intranet. In Cuba, it’s illegal for network providers to allow individuals access to the Internet without a government-issued license, which limits access to doctors, lawyers, government officials, and other nonthreatening individuals. The rest of the population only has access to a national e-mail system, some government-approved websites, and a Cuban encyclopedia.
Rather than using elaborate content-filtering systems, the Cuban government prefers to make the Internet unattractive through connectivity issues and high pricing. Accessing foreign websites costs seven times the price of accessing the national intranet, and users are greeted with obtrusive pop-ups informing them that their activity is being monitored. In general, connection speeds are painfully slow and PC access very difficult to come by.
Other than those with enough money and connections to get by the restrictions, most Cuban citizens merely use their Internet access to send e-mails. The government telecommunications agency ETECSA has opened Internet access stations throughout the country, but they are prohibitively priced for the average citizen.
Some Cubans engage in creative work-arounds to access the Internet, including sharing connections over Wi-Fi, building their own illegal satellite dishes or dial-up connections, or calling anonymous service lines in the US that allow them to text or speak in order to post on Facebook or Twitter. However, many Cubans engage in self-censorship out of paranoia, based largely on the history of government censorship and the occasional government beating of mouthy bloggers.
5 Bamboo Firewall
Vietnam is in the uneasy position of having one of the fastest-growing and most vibrant online communities in Southeast Asia that coexists with a security apparatus, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which is frequently compared to the KGB. The Vietnamese government began its regulation of the Internet in 1997 when complete oversight was given to the Director of the Postal Bureau. Since then, the government has struggled to keep up with ever-developing Internet technologies, but they have made a game effort.
Much MPS attention has fallen on unfortunate antigovernment bloggers, who are prosecuted under Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code for the crime of “abusing democratic freedoms,” which can lead to a maximum of seven years in prison. Other laws focus on “activities aimed [at] overthrowing the Communist Party of Vietnam and People’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam” or “conducting propaganda against the state,” while newer Internet-specific laws collect user IDs and try to force ISPs to host on servers within Vietnam.
Harassment of bloggers extends to their families, friends, and employers. The mother of one jailed blogger set herself on fire outside the Bac Lieu People‘s Committee building to protest the treatment of her daughter.
Given the widespread Internet penetration in the country and the eagerness of other branches of the government to promote Internet and telecommunications technology, there are severe limits to how much Vietnamese state security can truly control the Internet. Vietnam is unwilling to crack down on the Internet in as comprehensive a way as China, although Vietnam has scapegoated certain bloggers in an attempt to keep the rest of the country in line.
The 2015 release of blogger Dieu Cay in the wake of international condemnation gave hope to some, but it was quickly dashed by another crackdown. Some people believe this latest government suppression is a way to pander to China because some of the bloggers had posted critical commentaries on China and the Vietnamese government’s compromising approach to territorial disputes.
4 Syrian Electronic Army
Claiming to be a “a group of enthusiastic Syrian youths who could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria,” the Syrian Electronic Army is a hacker group linked to the Assad government. They have become notorious for using social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to organize spamming campaigns and denial-of-service attacks on individual, group, and organization websites.
Right before their formation in late 2011, Assad stated: “Young people have an important role to play at this stage, because they have proven themselves to be an active power. There is the electronic army which has been a real army in virtual reality.” They are highly likely to have heavy government backing, with some rumors suggesting that training and equipment was donated by Russia and Iran, key Assad allies.
They quickly turned their attention outward, getting involved in a cyber turf war with Anonymous and launching attacks on US government websites and international news outlets like the BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera. In 2013, they hacked into the BBC Weather Twitter account, posting faux weather updates for Israel: “Tsunami Alert for Haifa: Residents are advised to return to Poland” and “Forecast for Tel Aviv on Saturday—5000 degrees Kelvin with northern fog and eastern high pressure front.”
They even hacked the satirical news site The Onion, posting strange but somewhat in-character tweets like “Israel denies forging new alliance with Al Qaeda: ‘We were friends all along, so it can’t be new’—IDF Spokesperson” and “UN’s Ban Ki Moon condemns Syria for being struck by israel: ‘It was in the way of Jewish missiles.’ ”
In 2015, a US Army website was taken offline after it was hacked, displaying the message: “Your commanders admit they are training the people they have sent you to die fighting.” An Al Jazeera report revealed links between the Syrian Electronic Army and the pro-Assad security apparatus, which moved to occupy a position of strength on the Internet in response to antigovernment activism organizing on social media.
Some hackers were approached with generous salary packages, while others were tortured to gain information. It has been reported that the group has the technology to monitor 8,000 IP addresses per second and access activists’ computers remotely to steal passwords and monitor activity. They even have hackers pose as beautiful women on Facebook and matchmaking sites to target opposition fighters.
In 2012, a new Russian media regulator and telecom oversight agency known as Roskomnadzor was formed. They wasted no time in assembling a blacklist, using as justification a July 2012 law allowing the government to block websites containing child pornography, drug-related material, and details about suicide without obtaining a court order first. The biggest issue was that the blacklist was kept semisecret. You have to enter a specific website address into a registry to determine if it has or hasn’t been blocked.
Sites can be reported for offensive content by the public. Then the offending site is blocked by Roskomnadzor and given three days to remove the content. Russian journalists and civil activists were concerned that the law was so broad, it could be used to shut down sites containing offensive language or anything the government found objectionable. One of the first casualties was a suicide prevention site, which was ordered to remove a page detailing suicide methods.
Concerns of overzealousness on the part of Roskomnadzor appear to be justified. The agency has repeatedly threatened to ban YouTube, once in 2012 over an extremist video and again in 2013 over a Russian-uploaded video of a woman pretending to slit her wrists. Other sites to run afoul of the blacklist include popular Russian comedy site Lurkmore, social media site VKontakte, and Wikipedia.
In 2014, Roskomnadzor blocked a number of websites belonging to opposition parties and critical media organizations, such as the websites of Ekho Moskvy (an anti-Kremlin radio station) and former world chess champion and Putin critic Gary Kasparov (Kasparov.ru). They even blocked LiveJournal in order to pressure the social media site to delete the blog of Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader under house arrest.
In 2015, things took a turn for the weird when it was reported that Russia had banned Internet memes. In fact, the truth was slightly more prosaic: Roskomnadzor posted a stern warning on its VKontakte account reminding netizens of laws prohibiting “using a photo of a public figure to embody a popular Internet meme which has nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality.” Russian defamation law is strict, so creating a meme with a picture of Vladimir Putin or creating a parody social media account to lampoon a public figure is illegal in Russia.
The media watchdog’s power may be growing. In July 2015, a new law was passed granting the agency sweeping and vague powers to police foreign and domestic websites over their handling of the personal data of Russian citizens.
2 Golden Shield Project
Colloquially known as the Great Firewall of China, the Golden Shield Project is the Chinese government’s program for Internet surveillance and control. It was initiated by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) in 2000. An English translation of China’s Internet Censorship Anthem is in the video above.
Its original vision was ambitious: to create a comprehensive database surveillance system able to access the record of every citizen and link the security apparatus together at the national, provincial, and local level. The unexpected speed of telecommunications liberalization and technical development made things complicated and forced the plan to be downsized, shifting to content filtering and surveillance of individual users.
China has the most advanced and extensive Internet filtering system in the world. It has been exported to countries like Zimbabwe and Belarus and even used as a potential model for US Internet filtering systems. Golden Shield outright blocks some foreign sites and social media networks—like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—pushing users to state-sanctioned alternatives like Sina Weibo. They also use a variety of more complex tricks to obscure content filtering, such as poisoning DNS addresses, blocking IP addresses, filtering URL content and data packets, resetting connections, and blocking virtual proxy networks.
The Golden Shield project does more than simply block access to sites. Individual keywords considered politically inflammatory, such as “Tiananmen,” are also flagged in the system. Golden Shield also works hard to police and manipulate social media. Paid netizens post pro–Communist Party messages on major social media networks, which are increasingly under surveillance and control.
Golden Shield reacts swiftly and decisively to any criticism of state propaganda, indicating the real-time monitoring of discussions and searches by individuals rather than simply computer algorithms. The government censorship apparatus is assisted by an ingrained business culture of self-censorship, which even extends to foreign companies operating in the country.
The decision in 2015 to block virtual proxy networks caught netizens by surprise and generated widespread anger from ordinary citizens and businesses in China, with some netizens comparing China to North Korea. For many, however, the burgeoning Chinese intranet is more than enough for their needs, as they can access local and international news, chat and social network services, pirated media, and online shopping perfectly fine from within. This is a mirror of the wider Internet, designed to provide the Chinese public with everything they need, hermetically sealed from foreign influence and opinion.
1 Australia’s Internet Filter
Liberal democratic Australia may seem an odd fit with this motley crew of repressive regimes, but it is a perfect example of how authoritarian tendencies of control over the media emerge even in free countries.
In 2012, Reporters Without Borders placed Australia on a list of Enemies of the Internet, citing the Labor government’s unpopular mandatory content filtering policy, which tries to control access to websites through a National Classification Code based on common public standards of morality, decency, and propriety. “Refused Classification” content was to be blocked by ISPs, although many feared the policy was too broad, infringed on free speech, and could unfairly target smaller websites that inadvertently get caught in the dragnet.
The shift from a Labor to a Liberal government did little to change things, as Internet content filtering has cross-party support despite widespread public skepticism. The legislation allowing rights holders to seek court orders to force ISPs to block file-sharing websites was criticized as a form of censorship without sufficient safeguards and protections, creating a system where industries control access to content with higher costs and ordinary Internet users face inconvenience and unnecessary restrictions. Some have argued that the government is using protection of children as an excuse to create a system of online surveillance, control, and infantilization of the Australian public.
In 2015, a controversial piece of legislation called the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill was passed, aimed at curbing the high rates of online piracy on behalf of the music, film, and TV industries. The legislation would allow rights holders to go to a federal judge to force Australian ISPs and telecommunications companies to block overseas websites existing primarily for the purpose of facilitating copyright infringement.
But consumer groups and critics have complained that the legislation is vague and far-reaching, with great potential to unfairly target websites providing hosting services for material that does not infringe on others’ legal rights. In 2013, Australia’s corporate watchdog ASIC accidentally blocked access to 250,000 in order to target only one with infringing content. Some fear the government will use the legislation to block access to political or whistle-blowing websites like Wikileaks.
Of course, Australia is not the only Western democratic country to be criticized over an authoritarian approach to the Internet. David Cameron forced a mandatory opt-out content filtering system on British ISPs, which attracted widespread condemnation, while France has been criticized for pushing through censorship legislation without judicial oversight in the name of combating terrorism.
The US has also been heavily criticized by Reporters Without Borders, particularly for the technically advanced and highly sophisticated Internet monitoring systems developed for the NSA.
David Tormsen offers a hearty Salom, Dorood, Vitayu, Annyeong, Hola, Xin chow, Marhaban, Privyet, Ni hao, and G’day to all the Internet secret police viewing this article. E-mail him at [email protected].