As we enter 2017, it’s important to know who’s watching us while we watch the ball drop. Internet surveillance has been a hot-button issue for the past decade, and everyone is scrambling for info on how they can hide their browsing history from prying eyes. But what about the reverse? Governments around the world are censoring the internet that its citizens have access to. In fact, we’re fairly sure that our title alone will cause this page to be blocked in quite a few of them. Today, we’ll look at three of these nations, found using Reporters Without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” list, and how browsing the web there might be a little different than what you’re used to.
In Havana, Cuba, only about 280 miles from our Florida headquarters, hermano grande is always watching. Watching your internet use, anyway. There are actually two internets; an “international” one that offers access to the entire web (restricted to government employees) and the “national” network that is heavily monitored. Cubans must enter their name and address to log on, and all usage runs through government-run proxy servers that steal usernames and passwords. Typing in the wrong word results in a friendly message informing you of what you’ve done then locks you out. An ambassador claims that this is to “regulate access to [the] Internet and avoid hackers, stealing passwords, [and] access to pornographic, satanic cults, terrorist or other negative sites” and, reportedly, aside from those and a few anti-Castro websites, the internet isn’t too blocked off. It is, however, extremely difficult to get on. Internet usage costs around $1.30 per hour, in a country where average monthly wage is $20. And if you try to save money by working quickly, the average download speed is a measly 1 megabit per second. One reporter noted that foreign news sites were not censored; rather, the bandwidth needed to load their homepages made checking CNN.com prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. Warming relations between the US and Cuba should help their IT infrastructure (the American embargo against the island extends to network hardware) and make internet more affordable and accessible.
While not alone in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia might be the most direct about controlling what its denizens view online. All international web traffic to the country is routed through several content filters to block “immoral” web pages from reaching citizens. The “immoral” definition makes things tricky; the definition tends to be along the lines of
“pornography, drug use, gambling, religious conversion of Muslims, and filtering circumvention tools” and anything “against Islam, public morals or public order” but obviously includes very subjective opinions. 140 Wikipedia pages are blocked, such as “evolution” and “bikini waxing.” Recently, the Saudi government has been attempting to crack down on popular homegrown YouTube channels, which until now have been an escape from the rigid control over television programming in a country with half the population under 25.
It might be fairly surprising to learn that the United States also falls on the “Enemies of The Internet” list. The First Amendment extends to internet usage, so in theory there is very little government-mandated filtering. However, using “a complex set of legally binding and privately mediated mechanisms,” it is considered by organizations such as OpenNet Initiative to be highly regulated. State governments and private companies are often pressured by the federal government into censoring the internet for their users. Some domain name registration companies will deny public access to websites that the US Treasury places on its official blacklist. For example, a European travel agency found itself blocked out of the country for arranging loophole ways for American tourists to visit Cuba, still under embargo. School libraries throughout the country are required to install certain “internet safety protocols” if they wish to acquire federal funding. Branches of the military are seemingly allowed to censor what they wish. After British newspaper The Guardian published whistleblower Edward Snowden’s report on the NSA’s global surveillance program, their website became blocked on all personnel computers at US Army facilities around the world. The US Air Force has a similar policy in place for The Guardian and many other news websites that published leaked diplomatic cables. In the public realm, many websites apply filters and censors, and there’s a lot of debate on how much is too much. Facebook is known to remove what it deems to be “hate speech,” but many believe that opposing worldviews shouldn’t be removed simply for being unpopular. What is anti-homosexual to one person is pro-Christianity to another, and vice-versa.
We’d like to hear your take on it. Ever visit Cuba or Saudi Arabia or any other country and have an interesting story to tell about trying to access the internet there? Leave us a comment!