Social media is incredibly scary to repressive governments because it is just about impossible to control. Many authoritarian governments even look to incredibly censored North Korea and Eritrea as role models, instead of cautionary tales. Although the US government has announced sanctions against countries that try to block Internet access, international disapproval is unlikely to sway these oppressors from their path - especially when a nation finds itself worried about popular revolution, ala Syria and Iran.
Here’s some recent example of governments’ attempts to block out the Internet – particularly in those countries where, to some extent, the proverbial cat is already out of the bag. (Once people have access to the Internet and some modicum of wealth, getting them to give it up is a lot harder – another reason North Korea and Eritrea present something of a perfect scenario to many dictatorial regimes).
Although these are disturbing cases of government repression in action, I also find these cases rather heartening – mainly because government attempts to prevent Internet access rarely last very long, or work particularly well. It’s also worth pointing out that stagnant development and heavy censorship have a nasty habit of going hand-in-hand.
1. Pakistan temporarily blocked Twitter this week, provoking a predictable uproar among the country’s contingent of young Internet users - and raising questions about the government’s real motives. Pakistani officials claimed that Twitter was taken down due to an online “Draw Mohammed” competition, but a few Pakistani bloggers suspect that the move was actually made to test a new national URL filtering system, which could be used for political censorship in the future. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t a very bright or subtle move on the government’s part: now many more tech-savvy Pakistanis are highly aware that the government has the capacity to block popular websites, at least temporarily. (And many more Pakistanis are now aware such a thing as a “Draw Mohammed” competition even exists, as one blogger pointed out).
2. The Arab Spring protests in Egypt spurred a nation-wide Internet shutdown. Suddenly losing access to Twitter was particularly problematic for Tahrir Square activists, who relied on the service as an organizational and communication tool. But technology came through in a pinch: Twitter allowed activists to make posts via a new voice-to-Tweet service. After the fall of Mubarak, Egyptians flocked to Twitter once again. More censorship is on the horizon in Egypt however – at the end of April, an obviously tech-illiterate court ordered the government to ban “all Internet porn.” Good luck with that one, Egyptian telecom and IT professionals say.
3. Syria, aided and abetted by highly advanced US-made filtering devices (albeit shadily-acquired), has access to technology that can block and jam cell phones and closely monitor social network sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, all to help distinctly unpopular President Bashar Al-Assad stay in power. A Reporters Without Borders “Enemy of the Internet” since 2006, things have only gotten worse since protests against Al-Assad have begun. In June of last year, the Syrian government shut down the Internet entirely on a day when mass protests were planned. Meanwhile, government forces use intrusive malware to keep a close eye on local activists and journalists – particularly worrisome, considering that foreign correspondents have been forcibly ejected from the country. An Italian company reported pulling out of a contract with Syria that would create a monitoring system able to “intercept, scan and and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country.”
4. To no one’s surprise, Iran is intent on censoring the Internet and restricting access to its citizens – both to prevent dissent and to promote religious “purity.” While the Iranian government dreams of creating a fully enclosed “halal” Iranian Internet (or Intranet), right now it makes do with banning and closely monitoring Facebook, mounting surveillance cameras in Internet cafes, and creating ever-more advanced surveillance and blocking software. Iran’s remarkably creepy Internet spies closely monitor supposedly secure emails – and have even figured out ways to obtain fake digital identity documents, allowing them to covertly “pose” as Google without attracting the attention of usually-suspicious journalists and activists. Fake Facebook friends, employed by the government, have landed more than a few Iranians in prison. Although Twitter was a major change-agent during 2009 protests, Iran has quickly learned from that mistake, further restricting access to the microblogging site and improving its monitoring techniques.
5. Saudi Arabia is painfully aware of the protests and uprisings breaking out throughout the Middle East – and has taken measures against the Internet to ensure nothing of the sort takes place in the wealthy-but-oppressive Kingdom. The rather murky threat of “social destabilization” is trotted out to justify the use of dystopian surveillance software and URL bans on social networking pages and activist websites deemed objectionable, while news and media websites must apply to the culture and information ministry every three years for a license if they are to operate. 20% of the Saudi population uses Facebook, providing the young with more opportunity to mingle online than ever before – a threat to Saudi Arabia’s extremely strict religious laws. Although Facebook isn’t banned (other than a brief 2010 hiccup), social networks are monitored closely, and bloggers have been sent to jail for their online comments. Meanwhile, Saudi prince Alwaleed has purchased a cool $300 million stake in Twitter - raising fears of a conflict of interest if Saudi Arabia does erupt with protests on the same scale as its neighbors.