Internet censorship: It's on the rise and Silicon Valley is helping it happen

Instead of opposing the internet barriers raised by the world's authoritarian regimes, Silicon Valley is playing along.

Countries all over the world are restricting their citizens' internet access, building online borders, and fragmenting the network, with negative consequences for human rights, education, and even the global economy, according to security researcher Stefan Tanase.

"Less than three decades after the Berlin Wall collapsed and ended an era of division between the East and the West, the world seems on the brink of making the same mistakes over again, only this time we're making these mistakes in the cyberspace," Ixia's Tanase told a TEDx audience in Bucharest, Romania, last week.

The researcher, who has been working in cybersecurity for more than 10 years, argued that internet borders not only promote segregation, but have an impact on innovation, creativity, technology, and economy, slowing down progress on every level.

China's measures to regulate the internet domestically, dubbed the Great Firewall, boosted the internet censorship trend, and countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam followed.

Most of them are determined to maintain or even build up their targeted surveillance capabilities, the researcher told ZDNet in an interview before his talk, and some of them are using malware to spy on activists, lawyers, and journalists.

The online borders raised come on top of an already fragmented web. There is an English-speaking internet, a Russian-speaking internet which uses Yandex instead of Google and VK as an alternative for Facebook, as well as a Chinese-speaking internet where users tend to prefer search engine Baidu, eBay-like Taobao, and microblogging website Weibo, the researcher said.

"In the past two decades, many other nations followed in China's steps and enforced restrictions in the online world," Tanase told ZDNet. "When a large enough and resourceful nation does that, it creates a precedent others could use to justify similar actions."

He said information flows on the internet as water in communicating vessels. Some Russian-speaking users can read English, and some Chinese-speaking users understand English, so they can distribute the external information they access within their communities. According to Tanase, the walls some states erect in the online space are disturbing this principle of communicating vessels.

"Some might argue that tech-savvy people will always find a way to bypass censorship, but it's enough for a restrictive regime to block certain information sources for 95 percent of the population. The remaining five percent won't be enough to form the critical mass that's necessary to make change happen on a political level," he said.

Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a US-based digital rights nonprofit organization, told ZDNet that censorship and fragmentation are currently on the rise in some countries "partly due to the complicity of Silicon Valley companies".

"A decade ago, our main concern was governments implementing filtering mechanisms to censor the internet. Today that remains a problem, but more and more, Silicon Valley companies are willing to comply with takedown requests from authoritarian governments," she said.

According to York, in the past few months, the EFF has seen Snapchat and Medium comply with the government of Saudi Arabia, an attitude "unthinkable in previous years".

"Internet censorship creates inequality -- economic inequality, inequality of ideas, educational inequality, and more," she said.

It's up to the people to protect their digital rights, as "governments are working together in their bids for repression, closure of borders, the implementation of mass-surveillance, or cooperation on censorship", York said.

According to Ixia researcher Tanase, we're at an inflection point when it comes to freedom on the internet.

"It's time to ponder seriously on the implications of mass-surveillance and censorship. We, the people, have to decide what kind of internet we want our kids to use," he said.

"Do we want it to be like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four novel, where everybody's watched by the Big Brother, or do we want our kids to live in a future where digital privacy and security are basic human rights?"

tanase2.jpg

Security researcher Stefan Tanase argues that internet borders limit innovation and progress.

Image: www.thebucharests.ro

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