What Does Internet Censorship Look Like?

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) it looks like this:

This is the web page that users trying within the United Arab Emirates see when they navigate to flickr.com

I captured this from an internet cafe in Dubai in November, 2007, when I tried to navigate to flickr.com. Click for a larger image; the text reads, in Arabic and English, “We apologize [sic] the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.” I must say it was something of a shock. If you live in what is commonly known as “Western Civilization”, you’ve probably never run into a censored page before. As with all personal experience, if you don’t see it yourself it’s very easy to forget that it exists at all.

But internet censorship does exist. It’s very real. In fact, something like one third of the governments of the world censor their citizens’ internet access. Given that this includes India and (especially) China, it may be that half the people people in the world can’t actually see what Americans, Canadians, Europeans and so on experience as “the internet.” The OpenNet Initiative has a nice little graphic which illustrate this:

Map of Global Internet Censorship from the Open Net Initiative

The OpenNet Initiative is a ongoing collaboration between four different American and Canadian universities to test, track, and analyze internet censorship world-wide. Their work is extremely thorough and technically solid. One of the most interesting results of this research comes from analysis of the types of sites blocked by each country. Some governments, such as China, are mostly interested in restricting access to websites with political content or those which could be used to organize protests against the government. Others, such as Saudi Arabia, primarily block sites with religious or sexual content. This seems to reflect the different preoccupations and fears of different governments, and also and perhaps of the cultures that spawned them. I take this as yet another reminder that no one theory of the world can explain all the aspects of oppression that we see: “religion” is not the problem, and neither is “authoritarianism”.

The joke of all of this is that technological methods of censoring the internet — mostly done using a piece of software called SmartFilter from Secure Computing, boo, hiss — are notoriously brittle and easy to circumvent, at least for anyone with a little technological savvy. Proxies and other methods are widely available, and moving and changing too quickly for filtering software to keep up. There are also projects like Tor which is an open-source system for anonymous internet browsing through a layered tunnel, quite capable of circumventing government firewalls. More fundamentally, the internet is simply too big and complex and varied for anyone to draw up a list of every objectionable URL. Although every porn site I could think of (or make up) was unreachable from that Dubai net cafe, the young man next to me was able to pull up some really stunning images of naked breasts simply by typing “big boobs” into Google Image Search.

Of course, my assumption behind this whole article is that internet filtering is inherently bad. This is a very Western idea, and in fact a recent survey of Chinese citizens found that most approved of “government control of the internet,” though this might not be precisely the same thing as censorship. Yet I do see a basic principle here, something more fundamental even than the sacred right (to Westerners) of freedom of speech: it’s impossible to move towards a society of more trustworthy, empowered, and able citizens without at some point trusting the great unwashed masses to make their own decisions.

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