Former U.S. President Bill Clinton once laughed at China for trying to censor the internet.
“Good luck,” he said, during a speech at Johns Hopkins University in 2000. “That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”
After 19 years, China has become so good at “nailing Jell-O to the wall” that other nations are asking how they can do it too. China’s so-called “Great Firewall” filters everything that Chinese internet users see, blocking controversial content – including political speech – and funneling a vast amount of personal data back to government authorities watching for dissent.
For people in democratic countries, the internet has been largely a wide-open marketplace of ideas for the last 30 years. However, some governments are starting to get uncomfortable with the risks posed by a truly worldwide web. They’re trying to wall off their own corners of the internet, while claiming that it’s to protect people from hate, fake news and foreign election meddling.
In reality, many of these regimes are using their power over the internet to silence criticism, stifle activism and punish anyone whom they deem to be a threat.
In Congo, for instance, the government shut down the internet while it counted the results of a long-delayed, much-disputed presidential election. Officials claimed it was to protect the counting process against foreign meddling.
The U.S. sanctioned several Congolese election and government officials on Friday in connection with their handling of the electoral process.
“These individuals enriched themselves through corruption, or directed or oversaw violence against people exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” the State Department said in a statement. “They operated with impunity at the expense of the Congolese people and showed a blatant disregard for democratic principles and human rights.
Several leaders with autocratic tendencies, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have threatened to exercise more control over the internet within their borders, claiming that it’s necessary to fight “bias” and “fake news.” However, these claims often become a pretext for greater censorship.
Experts say this trend could splinter the internet into something that looks very different from one country to another. The global internet would still exist, but some countries’ citizens would only see it through a government-approved filter.
“There is a trend toward countries exerting their sovereignty over what they think is the internet in their country,” said Richard Forno, assistant director of the Center for Cybersecurity at UMBC.
These digital “walls” threaten free speech and democracy in many countries, according to Adrian Shahbaz, the research director for technology and democracy at Freedom House, an independent watchdog for democracy.
“Struggling democracies… have passed laws against ‘fake news’ that we know are being used against political opponents,” said Shahbaz, who publishes an annual report on internet freedom in most countries.
He says there are ways to regulate the internet so that its worst elements, such as hate speech and fake content, are suppressed. However, those same security measures make it easier for a government to attack free speech.
For example, Turkey, Iran and Egypt have temporarily blocked the internet within their borders during uprisings that were partially organized over social media. Turkey foiled a coup in 2016, then blocked several websites, including Wikipedia, after internet access was restored. Iran banned Twitter after a social media-driven uprising in 2009, and Egypt did the same after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Shahbaz says some nations, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, are now looking to China’s Great Firewall for pointers on how to develop their own controls for the internet. Other nations are trying to make tech companies police the internet – and strip out anything the government deems to be offensive.
India, for instance, is considering new measures to censor problematic content on social media. The European Union wants tech companies to automatically filter out the copyrighted content that fuels internet memes and videos. And in Russia, the government is preparing to temporarily isolate its internet from the rest of the world, just to be sure it can go it alone in the case of a catastrophic cyberattack.
This is all part of a growing movement toward a more censored version of cyberspace, according to Elizabeth Stoycheff, a professor of communication at Wayne State University.
“Where you are in the world is going to have an impact on the types of content you can access online, and how heavily monitored your behaviour is,” she told Global News. That doesn’t mean everyone will be putting up these digital walls – but there will be more than a few who do, she says.
“Democracies around the world have to think seriously about how they’re going to handle the internet.”
Here’s how countries are trying to shape the worldwide web so that it’s safer – or at least, less disruptive – within their borders.
‘Big Brother’ censorship
No country has more control over its internet use than China. The ruling Communist Party uses advanced technology and tens of thousands of internet censors to look at everything its 800-million internet users read and post online.
Google, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are banned in China. Instead, citizens get their news through state-owned media outlets, and connect with each other through government-monitored social-media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo.
Any outside company must agree to China’s rules before it’s allowed in.
China blocks a wide range of potentially controversial content, from news about its alleged persecution of minorities in Xinjiang province, to political activism, to full accounts of the bloody massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Censors even went so far as to ban Winnie the Pooh for a time, after a viral meme sprang up comparing President Xi Jinping to the pot-bellied bear.
Russia has also passed several laws that allow it to monitor citizens’ private communications and silence certain forms of free speech.
Russia’s internet watchdog can now block certain websites and apps, monitor influential blogs and force tech companies to remove a wide range of content. Russia has also tried to ban Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging service, because the app-maker refused to give authorities access to people’s messages.
But Russia’s efforts are about to go beyond censorship. The country is moving forward with plans to temporarily cut itself off from the wider internet. The test is meant to show the world that Russia can support itself if foreign nations try to kick it off the internet with a cyberattack, President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Wednesday.
Shahbaz says Russia’s move reflects a broader global trend toward enforcing borders and protecting national sovereignty – a desire to “build that wall,” as U.S. President Donald Trump might say.
Big tech censorship
Forno says China could probably copy Russia and run its own, self-contained version of the internet. However, most countries don’t have the technology to do that – or to monitor everything their citizens do online.
That’s why many countries are trying to make tech companies responsible for policing fake news and abusive content, Forno says. Those companies have the technology, and can be forced to comply if they want to keep operating in a given market.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” he said. “Companies have to play by the rules – that’s the easiest way to affect this trend in expressing sovereignty in cyberspace.”
India introduced a proposal last week that would force companies like Facebook and Google to regulate the kinds of content they display in the country. Under the rules, social-media giants would be required to automatically filter out and remove unlawful content within 24 hours. The government is currently listening to feedback on the proposed law.
The government says the law is meant to stem the violence caused by fake rumours spread over WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service that’s particularly popular in India.
Free-speech advocates and tech companies have raised concerns about the rules leading to political censorship.
Amba Kak, a lawyer and policy adviser for Firefox-maker Mozilla, says an automatic censorship system would force many tech companies into a “take down first, think later” model that would stifle free speech.
“This is not about the concerns of a handful of companies alone,” she wrote in a blog for the Times of India. “Rather than see this move through the trope of big tech versus big brother, we must understand that it is, above all, a threat to internet users.”
“This is very similar to what China does to its citizens, where it polices their every move and tracks their every post on social media,” Apar Gupta, head of the India-based Internet Freedom Foundation, said in a statement earlier this month.
“This would be terrible for the fundamental rights of privacy and free speech, both of which are essential to democracy,” Anja Kovacs, director of India’s Internet Democracy Project, tweeted in late December, after the plans were first announced. She says she’s particularly concerned by the possibility that intermediaries would read people’s private messages.
Russia has passed similar censorship laws over the last two years, which allowed it to punish tech companies for displaying content it doesn’t like. The government filed more than 182,000 complaints in the first half of 2018, up from 2,045 over the same period in 2016, according to Google’s transparency report. Google complied with 79 per cent of those requests.
Adrian Shahbaz says the tech industry will simply have to get better at filtering online content because governments are starting to demand it. Internet users should also be prepared for more censorship at the hands of those tech companies, he says.
“A lot of the decisions, if you’re the user, can feel arbitrary,” he said. “But I think we’re only going to see more of this.”
Freedom on the internet
When Bill Clinton mocked China for trying to censor the internet, he also said that the internet could be a force for democracy and change. He suggested the internet – and China joining the World Trade Organization – would loosen the Communist Party’s grip on its people.
“The genie of freedom will not go back into the bottle,” Clinton said, in that same “Jell-O” speech in 2000.
Human rights advocates hope that’s still the case in 2019, amid this push to censor content online. However, some experts, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, predict the internet will reach a breaking point in the future.
“I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America,” Schmidt said at a private event in San Francisco, according to CNBC.
Shahbaz says the days of a completely wide-open internet might be ending in some countries, but that doesn’t mean every nation should close itself off. Citizens just need to be vigilant about who is trying to regulate the internet, and why.
“There are legitimate risks out there,” he said. “But oftentimes the solutions are short-sighted, or put the people at greater risk.”