404 Forever? The Present and Future of Internet Censorship

In 2015, the reality of blocked or ‘censored’ websites continues to be a major phenomenon regardless of geographical location.

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404 Forever? The Present and Future of Internet Censorship

In 2015, the reality of blocked or ‘censored’ websites continues to be a major phenomenon regardless of geographical location. Differences between individual countries remain huge, however, so CoinTelegraph took a look at five major world economies to compare their position on Internet censorship, both for Bitcoin and other areas.

We used information from the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), whose research is presented in terms of ‘evidence’ of censorship taking place in a given country, and elsewhere in compiling the list below. The evidence is divided into five categories of severity: pervasive, substantial, selective, suspected, and none.

China

China

 

Number of sites blocked as of September 2015: ~3000
ONI censorship rating:
Political sites – PERVASIVE
Social media – SUBSTANTIAL
Conflict/ security related – PERVASIVE
Internet tools – SUBSTANTIAL*

China is famous for having the strictest internet controls of any major world economy. Its list of blocked sites notably includes ubiquitous resources such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as a host of websites that much of the international community takes for granted.

The filtering is not static; sites are blocked and unblocked short-term due to specific world events, or long-term due to factors which are simply unknown.

Punishments?

Similar to the paradoxical blocking and unblocking of various sites, the strictest filtering policy in the world is circumvented daily by significant numbers of China’s internet population, which by 2010 already numbered 450 million. Proxy servers are used to gain access to blocked content; keeping track of all the options is a task the government is unable to master.

Arrests and fines have been handed out to those suspected of disseminating unwanted information online.

Bitcoin?

The situation regarding Bitcoin and China is notoriously changeable and complex. The majority of resources connected with Bitcoin are subject to the ban, yet Chinese Bitcoin trading remains easily the most active globally.

The People’s Bank of China has further pressured digital currency entities into ceasing servicing Chinese citizens looking to transact with bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency.

*While internet tools are monitored, proxy servers for example often slip through the net as mentioned above.

United States

USA

 

The US is considered to be lenient in terms of censorship of anything – even the ONI has no specific profile for it. However, the lack of accessible information about blocked sites not related to institutional or corporate filtering is notable.

The US made the list of ‘Enemies of the Internet’ in 2014, a list that categorizes countries based on the level of internet censorship and surveillance they undertake.

Separately, while there is officially no mechanism for the US government to block access to a site for all citizens, individual ISPs have been known to do this on a temporary basis. Sites which are blocked due to content considered illegal are also tended to by ISPs.

Penalties?

Accessing illegal content brings with it specific costs associated with the type of content accessed, rather than the very act of accessing content blocked by an ISP.

Bitcoin?

While the regulations governing actual use of bitcoin, for both private individuals and businesses, vary from state to state and are subject to considerable bureaucracy, information about cryptocurrency is not controlled.

United Kingdom

UK

 

Number of sites blocked as of September 2015: unknown (varies by ISP and sector)
ONI censorship rating:
Political sites – NO EVIDENCE
Social media – NO EVIDENCE
Conflict/ security related – NO EVIDENCE
Internet tools – NO EVIDENCE

The UK has a curiously unwieldy policy of internet censorship. In addition to illegal content, specific requirements are made by the government to make ISPs block content related to copyright infringement. ISPs also choose to block further content themselves.

The list of torrent sites blocked by the UK is extensive. The ways in which blocking is done often results in unintentional blocks; charities, sex education and psychological help resources are often cited as examples. Nonetheless, proxy servers and other methods of internet circumvention are freely available.

Separately, the UK is included in a list of ‘Corporate Enemies of the Internet’, a list of countries harbouring businesses selling products used by governments for purposes of internet censorship and surveillance.

Punishment?

Punishments for circumventing blocked content vary considerably depending on the type of content accessed.

Separate from accessing, recent amendments targeting specific dissemination of material have allowed for heavy penalties. An example is so-called ‘revenge porn’ in which non-consensual images of a third party are posted online, which carries a maximum custodial sentence of 2 years.

Bitcoin?

As in the US, no attempt is made to block Bitcoin information resources in the UK.

Germany

Germany

 

Number of sites blocked as of September 2015: unknown (varies by ISP and sector)
ONI censorship rating:
Political sites – NO EVIDENCE
Social media – NO EVIDENCE
Conflict/ security related – NO EVIDENCE
Internet tools – NO EVIDENCE

Germany, in a similar fashion the UK, focuses its filtering on copyright protection, yet in a way which is considerably more pervasive (and not included within the ONI parameters).

The GEMA, or Society for musical performing and mechanical reproduction rights, blocks copyrighted content tied to record labels or music publishers from being made available for free viewing on resources primarily online.

YouTube is heavily restricted, and lesser-used online resources are continually monitored from copyright infringement. Separately, GEMA controls and imposes fees applicable to public venues such as nightclubs for playing copyrighted material.

Penalties?

The consequences of violating GEMA-sanctioned rules vary; hosted content on YouTube is often simply removed without further action, while heavy fines or even prison sentences are applied to regular offenders downloading pirated content or venues playing material without permission.

Bitcoin?

Germany has traditionally been a contradictory environment for Bitcoin’s legality. Popular trading site Localbitcoins has previously been banned in Germany, and German bank Sparkasse has closed accounts linked to Bitcoin trading. At the same time, Germany is home to innovators such as Fidor Bank, offering bitcoin purchasing with the same protection as is afforded to regular bank customers holding current accounts.

Russia

Russia

 

Number of sites blocked as of September 2015: 13,500 blacklisted page entries (official register)
ONI censorship rating:
Political sites – SELECTIVE
Social media – SELECTIVE
Conflict/ security related – NO EVIDENCE
Internet tools – NO EVIDENCE

Russia’s censorship procedures focus on political information, both official websites and associated content on social media. There is also a raft of sites blocked due to posing some form of threat to public order or safety, yet the definitions associated with these terms are at best extremely vague and open to interpretation.

Punishments?

Dissemination of politically critical content can bring heavy penalties, as has been witnessed by the treatment of protestors and minor opposition.

Bitcoin?

Bitcoin resources have been subject to blocks for contributing to a ‘shadow economy’, yet an official ban has never been implemented and random restrictions, both at local and national level, remain the status quo.

Ivan Tikhonov, BTCsec

CoinTelegraph spoke to Btcsec.com founder Ivan Tikhonov for further insight into the mechanisms behind website blocking in Russia and elsewhere, and how this practice may change in future. Tikhonov successfully lobbied for the unblocking of Btcsec.com, which had been blocked by a regional court. The case subsequently opened the door for several well-known international cryptocurrency sites to be unblocked for Russian users.

CoinTelegraph: What are the main differences in how Roskomnadzor [the Russian state media monitor] blocks (and unblocks) sites compared with practices in China for example?

Ivan Tikhonov: A particular difference between them is China has experience. There the authorities have much more experience with blocking of content. I think the Russian government will seek to gain experience from its Chinese colleagues, possibly even purchase some form of comprehensive solution.

Roskomnadzor does not just find sites to block; it also implements rulings made by courts, i.e. acts as an enforcement authority. If a decision to block a website is made by a court, contesting this decision is possible only at court level, not with Roskomnadzor directly.

CT: What has been your experience attempting to reverse the blocks on your resources? What conclusions can you draw about the way local and national government attempt to filter information?

IT: When btcsec.com was blocked, we first sought clarification. The reason turned out to be a ruling by a court in a small town near Yekaterinburg, which nonetheless applied to the entire country. Roskomnadzor received the court ruling and added the site to the blacklist. Every Russian ISP is obligated to download this list every day and block those sites which have been added to it.

Each ISP employs different methods of blocking sites. Some use DPI, some block sites at DNS server level and some even block IP servers – a crude method if ever there was one. Imagine what happens when this involves a hosting company server, which could have one IP for a thousand client sites.

We reckoned that this block was illegal, thus we swiftly took action to ensure any negative consequences were kept to a minimum. We changed the server IP address, moved over to the Bits.media domain and submitted an appeal to the court. We battled the ruling for half a year, and won. After the ruling had been announced, Roskomnadzor removed btcsec.com for the blacklist.

Technically it was too little too late as we’d already switched to Bits.media, but it was a matter of principle to continue on until the end and prove that we were in the right. Besides getting the block reversed we managed to get a full quashing of the court’s original ruling which had blocked several other sites including bitcoin.org and bitcoin.it. These are now available throughout Russia thanks only to the fact that we won in court.

CT: Which discrepancies have you seen between how the central bank and MinFin [the Russian Ministry of Finance] view the issue? 

IT: The Central Bank is playing a waiting game. They’re studying the possibilities held by the blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and watching how things play out internationally. They warn legal entities against working with cryptocurrency, yet have not implemented an all-out ban. MinFin on the other hand wants to ban the use of cryptocurrencies; it considers them money surrogates and wants to introduce a law which would introduce penalties for their use ranging from fines to full criminal liability.

CT: How do you see these practices changing in future? Do you think it'll become more or less easy for governments to continue blocking content?

IT: For the time being we’re still at the stage of deanonymization and strengthening of control; providers are being made to install DPI equipment. But with the strengthening of control comes strengthening of the opposition. More than 100 mass media entities have written about the blocking of cryptocurrency sites, which has had the opposite effect – even disinterested people now know what cryptocurrencies are.

People are faced with blocks more often and are beginning to find ways of circumventing them. Even more users are beginning to understand what TOR, VPN and proxy servers are. Technology does not stand still; people are starting to try out Mesh networks and similar tools. They’re thinking about how to mask traffic and about decentralized decisions.

CT: Does the decision to overturn the block on some resources set a precedent, or do you think it is an isolated incident?

IT: In Russia there’s no case law. However the overturning of the court ruling and resonance with the mass media could influence decisions on the part of courts and prosecutors involved in blocking of further sites. Plus the owners of these sites have seen that it’s possible not just to submit to the blocking but actually successfully get it undone. Yes it may be expensive and time-consuming, but it’s possible.

Summary

The blockchain has meanwhile sought to undermine the arbitrary controls of governments on netizens by fostering services which provide uninhibited distribution of content. Tools such as Decent, which has built an international physical presence, use distributed methods to ensure sharing of editorial and other content is possible regardless of IP-related restrictions.

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