In January 2011, Egyptian activists, inspired by a successful uprising in Tunisia, began organizing a demonstration using Facebook. In a matter of days, thousands of protesters – who learned about the event through the social media platform – gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the longstanding Mubarak regime.
Then, in an attempt to quash civil unrest, the Egyptian government soon took the bold step of cutting off the country’s internet access. As the size of protests swelled from thousands to millions of people, the Mubarak regime quickly realized their mistake: never cut off a millennial’s internet access.
Mubarak was ultimately forced to resign after just 18 days of massive protests, but in that time Egypt’s Arab Spring demonstrated two major things: (1) the incredible organizing power of the internet, and (2) the how quickly a government could slam the door on the free flow of information.
The Egyptian government was able to quickly and effectively shut down the chokepoints that connect its citizens to the outside world. Etisalat, for example, is a centrally located routing system that could see up to 58% of Egypt’s IP addresses.
In other words, Mubarak was essentially able to blockade every website in the world by making a few simple phone calls.
A New Era Of Internet Censorship
Egypt’s dramatic internet shutdown became a new template for other precarious regimes, but also sparked a broader global conversation around online censorship.
Today’s infographic comes to us from WhoIsHostingThis and it provides a detailed look at varying levels of internet censorship around the world today.
Internet users in North America and Europe enjoy relatively unfettered access to online content, while most countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have some level of censorship. Torrenting is restricted in almost every country in the world, with a notable exception being Switzerland, where a laissez-faire approach is applied to downloading content for personal consumption.
It’s also worth noting that this map does not address government surveillance, which is ubiquitous even in countries with high levels of internet freedom.
The Anti-Information Age
If you want to liberate a country, give them the internet
–Wael Ghonim, Egyptian internet activist
Much of the world’s population accesses an internet that is at least partially censored. Countries have different motivations for restricting access and filtering content. Below are a few high-profile examples.
When most people think of internet censorship, China springs to mind. This makes sense as the country has a small army (upwards of 50,000 people) monitoring internet activity at all times. Also, much like Egypt, the government forces all online traffic through a mere three central routing systems. This makes it easy for censors to sift through all data entering and leaving the country.
China’s censorship apparatus is so advanced, it can take a very granular approach to repression and enforcement.
The country’s swelling blacklist of 100,000 websites, coupled with harsh penalties for any whiff of anti-government sentiment, have created an extremely restrictive environment for Turkish internet users.
In 2016, the government of Ethiopia blocked access to social networking sites to prevent cheating during the university entrance exam period.
Unauthorized surfing of the internet is a dangerous activity in the Hermit Kingdom. The primary smartphones, tablets, operating systems, and browsers used in the country were all developed by the government, and content on the 5,000 or so accessible websites is tightly controlled.
Slipping Through the Firewall
Even when censoring measures are pervasive and effective, people continually find ways to slip between the cracks. For years, people have used proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPNs) to access content beyond their country’s censorship wall, but censors are getting better at discovering proxy servers and simply blocking them as they would any other site.
As a result, newer techniques are gaining popularity:
Steganography is the science of hiding information. Basically, an innocuous file like an image can be stealthily encoded with information to evade detection by censors. Even changing a single pixel on a series of images can be used to relay a message, provided the recipient knows what to look for.
This circumvention tool uses partnerships with ISPs and other network operators to provide Internet freedom to users. Rather than trying to hide individual proxies, whole networks outside the censored country can become a conduit for the free flow of information.