May 22, 2016
Is Internet Censorship on the Rise?
Social media is considered an increasing problem by some governments around the world. Its ability to bring people together, to allow them to communicate and organize, can be a real problem for some governments, to the extent that they would rather turn the entire internet off rather than risk people using it. While this is upsetting, inconvenient and expensive for the citizens of these countries, it can be a real surprise for travelers. While the world is becoming more and more connected, it would be a mistake to rely on this when you are abroad. While you can rely on hotel WIFI and messaging apps to communicate with the folks back home, it would be a mistake to do so without a back-up plan that involves calls and texts. In the last week, there have been several instances where the internet, or aspects of social media, have been shut down by government officials. Let’s look at some of these:
It’s exam season in Iraq, and in this modern age of smartphones, technology and connectivity, cheating is becoming a serious concern. However, many people have criticized the government’s decision to completely shut down the entire internet for short periods as something of an overreaction. This is something that happened last year, but without much explanation. The outages have been running for three consecutive days so far, and look set to continue until the exams are over.
For many people, particularly in Asia, Facebook may as well be the internet as far as they are concerned. So when Facebook (and Instagram) is blocked, as happened in Vietnam last weekend, it can be a jarring and unnerving experience. It is precisely because the social media giant is such an effective tool for connecting people with similar viewpoints that puts it at risk of closure, as the government can take exception to large groups of people organizing protests. In this case, people are deeply unhappy at about an environmental disaster caused by a Taiwanese plastics corporation and have been using social media to express this.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was sworn into office for a fifth term, after an election that was considered questionable by international observers and human rights groups. Social media sites Facebook and Twitter were blocked for four days while the election took place, only being restored once it was over. Sites were also blocked back in February for similar reasons.
Over the last six months, the Indian government has had a somewhat trigger-happy approach to internet shutdowns, with ten events in the last few months. The current outages are happening in the city of Azamgarh, where there are tensions between two community groups. The government has shut the internet down in order to stop the spread of rumours and also to monitor social media postings over the last few days. Among those affected are banks, which have lost up to 33 million dollars’ worth of e-commerce revenue as a result of the shutdowns.
While there is currently a good service in Brazil, many citizens have suffered recently due to a court order to shut down WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app used by millions in Brazil. In one of her last acts before being suspended from office, former President Dilma Rousseff passed a decree related to net neutrality which also included an attempt to stave off further attempts to shut down social media. However, the decree is not expected to take effect until next month, and with Rousseff now impeached, it is unclear whether this will become law or not. With the Olympics coming this summer, some clarity on this issue is urgently needed.
Back in February, Moroccan telecoms companies blocked all VOIP services throughout the country, including Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It is believed that this has been done to protect telecoms companies’ revenues, but it has not been a popular decision. Today, Maroc Telecom, one of the biggest ISPs in the country, has begun blocking online gaming, in a move that is likely to further infuriate people. Despite an increasing number of people signing petitions against these moves, the government has not stepped in to help.