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Is the internet becoming less free than it used to be? Many researchers argue that the answer is yes.
2018’s annual Freedom on the Net report from the Freedom House Organization points to a troubling pattern of a decline in freedom, with over a third of countries assessed receiving lower online freedom scores than a year earlier.
Internet censorship can take many forms, ranging from governments blocking certain websites or content (internet censorship in China has blocked not only Facebook and Google but, at times, Winnie the Pooh and the letter “N”) to legal threats or physical violence against online dissenters. At times, we may find ourselves debating what exactly constitutes “internet censorship.” For instance, is it censorship when non-governmental platforms remove user-generated content, like when Facebook takes down breastfeeding photos or Twitter banned Alex Jones? Most citizens of democratic nations are against the idea of government censorship, but in practice, governments may outlaw and censor material as benign as political satire or as repugnant as terrorism. That’s why anti-censorship platforms such as the Substratum project take measures to protect their network against extreme content such as terrorism material or worse.
Internet censorship is complicated, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the negative consequences of when it runs rampant and chills political dissent, artistic expression, economic self-determination, and academic research across the entire globe. From the birth of Tor to next-generation platforms such as Substratum, tools for fighting censorship continue to be vital.
Internet Censorship: A Timeline
So how did the internet become such a censored place? The answer has to do with the internet’s explosive growth over the past few decades.
Worldwide internet usage has expanded 1,104% between 2000 and 2019, and 56.1% of the global population—over 4 billion people—now have access to the internet. What used to be a niche pursuit of academics and nerds is now an increasingly vital tool for sharing information and ideas. A growing number of people even see open internet access as a basic human right, with a 2011 UN resolution declaring that deliberately disconnecting a population’s internet access is a human rights violation.
The internet as we know it was born in 1991, when the World Wide Web, a network of documents linked through hypertext technology, first became open to members of the general public. Ever since then, the internet has seen landmark efforts to spread information, as well as landmark efforts to defeat that spread:
1995 – Researchers with the U.S. Navy start developing onion routing, a method for obscuring the source and destination of internet traffic using a network of nodes that encrypt data packets, creating onion-like layers of anonymity. Their research forms the basis of the Tor browser.
1996 – The U.S. enacts the Communications Decency Act, which prohibits posting “indecent” or “patently offensive” material on the internet. While much of the CDA is struck down as unconstitutional, section 230, which limits the liability of internet providers, social media platforms, and other intermediaries for illegal content their users share or access, remains.
1998 – The U.S. passes the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which criminalizes the dissemination of technology meant to overcome copyright protections. The DMCA has been subject to criticism from free speech advocates ever since, who argue it restricts scientific research, legitimate technological innovation, free expression, the fair use of copyright materials, and other online activities and discourses.
1998 – China’s Ministry of Public Security launches the “Golden Shield” initiative to limit citizens’ access to material seen as disruptive to country leadership. The Golden Shield grows into the “Great Firewall of China,” one of the world’s most comprehensive internet censorship programs.
1999 – Specifications for the first “Virtual Private Network” (VPN) are published online. VPNs allow users to access private networks across public networks. VPNs became popular not only for companies sharing private services and data with satellite offices and workers but with individual users evading geo-restrictions and internet censorship.
2008 – Satoshi Nakomoto publishes a paper outlining “Bitcoin,” a decentralized “peer-to-peer electronic cash system.” The blockchain concept described is censorship-resistant thanks to its reliance on a network of distributed ledgers. Years later, the same blockchain technology that enables bitcoin leads to the creation of censorship-fighting tools such as Justin Tabb’s Substratum.
2011 – The Mubarak regime shuts down all internet in Egypt in an attempt to limit information flow regarding “Arab Spring” protestors and news reporting. Afterward, similar country-wide internet blackouts occur soon in Lybia and Syria.
2015 – Following a 2014 court decision that struck down much of the 2010 Open Internet Order, the FCC approves a Net Neutrality order that designates ISPs “Common Carriers” and forbids discriminatory blocking or throttling. The new order survives a 2016 court challenge.
2017 – The FCC repeals its earlier net neutrality order.
2017 – China “hardens” its Great Firewall by cracking down on VPN services. Once a go-to tool for students, researchers, businesspeople, and activists for surpassing the Great Firewall, VPNs become significantly more difficult to use.
The Consequences of Internet Censorship
The consequences of internet censorship can be devastating. In China, crackdowns on VPN access have curtailed not only political activism but also science and entrepreneurship, as researchers and businesses lose necessary tools such as Google Scholar or Dropbox. Authoritarian governments all over the world have used internet censorship to repress democracy and education, but internet censorship has adverse effects in developed, “democratic” countries too.
In the U.S., companies have wielded the DMCA to censor online technology discourse. Erosion of net neutrality especially threatens rural U.S. communities, who could face even more limited and expensive broadband access from deregulated ISPs.
But not only that, the harm caused by internet censorship extends into its victims’ entire worldview and way of life as well. Some victims may not realize they’re being censored because the fact of censorship itself, or information about what is censored, is repressed. For example, many citizens of North Korea have no idea of how profoundly their country’s “internet” differs from the actual World Wide Web. Censorship can, in turn, lead to self-censorship and general reluctance to participate in public discourse, a mindset researchers observe censorship-victims struggling to shake off even after leaving censor-controlled areas.
The internet has come a long way from a few hypertext-connected documents shared among academic institutions and military bases. As the internet has grown, internet censorship has become similar to the Hydra from Greek mythology, which sprouted two heads for every head cut off.
And although Tor, VPNs, and activism have all proven to be vital when it comes to fighting censorship, there will always be the need for innovative censorship-fighting tools. And that is what the team at Substratum is striving to create with their SubstratumNode, a blockchain-based tool that enables decentralized, censorship-resistant internet access through a global, robust network of node operators located all around the world.