'Extremely aggressive' internet censorship spreads in the world's democracies
The largest collection of public internet censorship data ever compiled shows that even citizens of the world's freest countries are not safe from internet censorship.
A University of Michigan team used Censored Planet, an automated censorship tracking system launched in 2018 by assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science Roya Ensafi, to collect more than 21 billion measurements over 20 months in 221 countries. They will present the findings Nov. 10 at the 2020 ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security.
"We hope that the continued publication of Censored Planet data will enable researchers to continuously monitor the deployment of network interference technologies, track policy changes in censoring nations, and better understand the targets of interference," Ensafi said.
Poland blocked human rights sites; India same-sex dating sites
Ensafi's team found that censorship is increasing in 103 of the countries studied, including unexpected places like Norway, Japan, Italy, India, Israel and Poland—countries which the paper notes are rated as some of the freest in the world by advocacy group Freedom House. They were among nine countries where Censored Planet found significant, previously undetected censorship events between August of 2018 and April of 2020. Previously undetected events were also identified in Cameroon, Ecuador and Sudan.
While the United States saw a small uptick in blocking activity, mostly driven by individual companies or internet service providers filtering content, the study did not uncover widespread blocking. However, Ensafi points out that the groundwork for such blocking has been put in place in the United States.
"When the United States repealed net neutrality, they created an environment in which it would be easy, from a technical standpoint, for internet service providers to interfere with or block internet traffic," Ensafi said. "The architecture for greater censorship is already in place and we should all be concerned about heading down a slippery slope."
It's already happening abroad, the study shows. Its authors point to a worrying trend where democratic governments, aided by readily available technology and legislative cover, are slowly integrating internet censorship into the tools of government.
"What we see from our study is that no country is completely free," said Ram Sundara Raman, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science and engineering at U-M and the first author on the paper. "We're seeing that many countries start with legislation that compels internet service providers to block something that's obviously bad like child pornography or pirated content. But once that blocking infrastructure is in place, governments can block any websites they choose, and it's a very opaque process. That's why censorship measurement is crucial, particularly continuous measurements that show trends over time."
Norway, for example—tied with Finland and Sweden as the world's freest country according to Freedom House—passed a series of laws requiring internet service providers to block some gambling and pornography content, beginning in early 2018. Censored Planet's measurements, however, show internet service providers in Norway imposing what the paper calls "extremely aggressive" blocking across a broader range of content, including human rights websites like Human Rights Watch and online dating sites like Match.com.
Similar tactics show up in other countries, often in the wake of large political events, social unrest or new laws. News sites like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, for example, were aggressively blocked in Japan during Osaka's hosting of the G20 international economic summit in June of 2019. News, human rights and government websites saw a censorship spike in Poland after a series of protests in July of 2019, and same-sex dating websites were aggressively blocked in India after the country repealed laws against gay sex in September of 2018.
Censored Planet releases technical details for researchers, activists
The researchers say the findings show the effectiveness of Censored Planet's approach, which turns public internet servers across the globe into automated sentries that can monitor and report when access to websites is being blocked. Running continuously, it takes billions of automated measurements and then uses a series of tools and filters to analyze the data, removing noise and teasing out trends.
The paper also makes public technical details about the workings of Censored Planet that Raman says will make it easier for other researchers to draw insights from the project's data. It will also help activists make more informed decisions about where to focus their efforts.
"It's very important for people who work on circumvention to know exactly what's being censored on which network and what method is being used," Ensafi said. "That's data that Censored Planet can provide, and tech experts can use it to devise circumventions for censorship efforts."
Censored Planet's constant, automated monitoring is a departure from traditional approaches that rely on volunteers to collect data manually from inside the countries being monitored. Manual monitoring can be dangerous for volunteers, who may face reprisals from governments. Its limited scope also means that efforts are often focused on countries already known for censorship, enabling nations that are perceived as freer to fly under the radar. While censorship efforts generally start small, Raman says they could have big implications in a world that is increasingly dependent on the internet for essential communication needs.
"We imagine the internet as a global medium where anyone can access any resource, and it's supposed to make communication easier, especially across international borders," he said. "We find that if this continues, that won't be true anymore. We fear this could lead to a future where every country has a completely different view of the internet."
The paper is titled "Censored Planet: An Internet-wide, Longitudinal Censorship Observatory."