When you look at internet freedom around the world, the picture isn’t pretty. On all continents, governments are taking steps to enclose the internet, imposing censorship and taking sites offline, while using technology to extend their grip over populations.
But all is not lost. As this article argues, resistance is emerging which might prise open even the most repressive digital regimes.
Getting up to speed with global developments
However, before we move onto resistance, it’s important to be honest about how troubling the situation has become. Here are just a few examples of how countries extended their online powers in 2018.
- Turkmenistan – First the good news. In August 2018, the Turkmen government extended a rural internet subsidy scheme, connecting far-flung settlements to the capital. However, on the flipside of the digital coin, Ashgabat extended its online authority in 2018, with Human Rights Watch commenting that the web remains “limited and heavily state-controlled” and a string of democracy and animal rights campaigners being persecuted for social media postings.
- Sudan – The Sudanese government is facing a pro-democracy uprising which is reportedly being aided by VPN apps. But this comes after Khartoum flexed its muscles, blocking access to sites like Facebook and Twitter. It’s a fascinating case of a government investing in the means to block key websites, but citizens resisting via their own means.
- Uganda – In one of the most depressing stories of 2018, the Ugandan government launched a far-reaching online crackdown, including blanket bans for VPNs and the prosecution of high-profile campaigners like musician Bobi Wine. It’s all part of a troubling campaign to “clean up” the Ugandan web by the Museveni government, which opposes pornography and has a terrible record on protecting LGBT rights.
- China – Chinese online censorship is well-documented, but 2018 saw it become even more severe. Under Xi Xinping’s leadership, the Peoples Republic is tightening access to western sites and VPNs, and has boosted its army of human censors, who track and delete subversive content. It’s probably the most repressive online environment on earth. However, this hasn’t stopped corporations like Google trying to make peace with the regime – not an encouraging sign.
Understanding the dynamics of government censorship
Across the world, we can see the same patterns. As dissent against low standards of living, environmental destruction, repressive government and lack of civil rights has grown, governments have taken action.
Futurists used to think that the spread of the internet would promote freedom and global consciousness. The information would flow freely, empowering citizens and making an end-run around dictatorships, making a return to totalitarianism unthinkable.
That rose-tinted view is hard to sustain any more. It turns out the internet can be harnessed by repressive rulers (and corporations) to enhance their surveillance capacities.
This process has been turbo-charged by the environment following the Global Financial Crisis, which still provokes uprisings (such as the protests in Sudan). Governments that are facing constant threats to their position have used technology to manage those risks – something we can see in the USA and Europe, as much as China.
Targeting websites is becoming standard practice
In this kind of environment, specific websites have become a battleground between state and society, putting them out of reach for millions of people.
Take the relationship between Twitter and China, for example. It’s easy to see why Beijing doesn’t like Twitter. Imagine information about rural protests against corruption spreading virally across hundreds of millions of accounts.
That’s why the Great Firewall officially blocks access to Twitter. And it’s also why Beijing has staged show trials of dissidents who have used Twitter as a platform. There’s no prospect of the site being freely available while the Communist state exists.
Other governments are more subtle. For instance, after the alleged assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Riyadh launched a low key censorship campaign to keep critical voices away from Saudi readers. News sources like CBS or the LA Times were blocked – a sign of how precise repression can be in the digital age.
Are there grounds for optimism about online freedom in 2019?
Before you surrender to the surveillance state and learn to love Big Brother, take a step back. From one point of view, the state of internet freedom is terrifying, with dictatorships marrying their lust for power to intrusive digital technologies.
However, from another perspective, a global revolt is brewing which could make government strategies obsolete, and it revolves around VPNs.
Let’s return to Sudan, where protests have challenged the longstanding Bashir dictatorship. Sudan is a very poor country, but it has a high rate of smartphone ownership. And – judging by the way protesters have continued to organise online – it also has a high rate of VPN usage.
While the government has officially blocked sites like Twitter or Facebook, protesters have just evaded them via VPNs. And the government has struggled to respond.
That’s also why Uganda was so desperate to ban VPNs, and why China tries (ineffectually) to select approved VPNs (one of them – well reviewed PrivateVPN) and prohibit others. Below the surface, people are using technology to protect and claim freedom. So while 2019 could be a year of deepening repression, it could also be a year of resistance and the turning of the tide.