By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Let’s face it. We live in a country that knows no bounds to the pursuit of knowledge and sets virtually no restrictions upon our digital freedoms (copyright infringement excluded). The information highways are clear and thriving. When the occasional roadblock congests our traffic we gripe and we moan, but we also carry on for the most part unperturbed.
It’s hard for us to imagine having it any other way. However, what we as Americans take for granted is a privilege that many don’t get to enjoy.
Next time you begin to complain about infringement upon your freedom of speech, or comment on an apparent slant of the press, be mindful about other countries whose digital frontiers continue to be censored.
This one’s no shocker–since the day his father came to power, Kim Jong-un’s isolated society has maintained a seemingly impenetrable veil (well, more like an iron wall) of secrecy. Although information on the matter is scant, it’s acknowledged that the majority of the population doesn’t have access to the internet.
The citizens don’t seem to mind too much. After all, they have the country’s intranet service Kwangmyong to post birthday messages.
But in a country where the power of speech is stifled and access to information close to obliterated, does internet censorship really matter? Perhaps many North Koreans don’t have a realized grasp on the potential lingering outside of Kim Jong-un’s self-imposed vacuum of knowledge.
Minimal online access is allowed. Most North Koreans use “Red Star,” which is a state-run operating system that only includes government sanctioned Web sites and local message boards. Tourists allowed into the country can use a newly established 3G network, but they can’t share it with anyone.
The Communist Party and State Council are well on their way with China’s 12th Five-Year Plan on Cultural Reform and Development. Reform is kind of a loose word, though. What exactly do they have in mind?
A Chinese government run surveillance entity known as The Great Firewall of China is responsible for banning chat apps. Since 2009, they’ve been working on censoring a variety of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Many online profiles discovered by the government are almost immediately shut down. Their banning goes so far as to include discreet accounts like Gmail. But unlike North Korea, many of China’s citizens are aware of this stifling and don’t approve.
One Chinese internet user, @banfengdeniu, argued that the country’s internet censorship was easily setting China back two decades. He’s certainly not the only one arguing for his rights to expression.
Technically speaking the bar on Facebook was dropped at the end of last year. However, this freedom is only implemented for a Free Trade Zone (FTZ) with an 11-square-mile radius in Shanghai. Clearly, making the foreign investors happy takes precedent over the country’s citizens.
Here’s a strange example of censorship. Despite the fact that Iranian courts have outlawed Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and most recently Instagram, many of the political leaders still enjoy personal accounts with the services. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is regularly active on Twitter, and there are Instagram accounts in the names of President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
If you’re looking for some 140-character-long-or-less insights from President Rouhani, just be advised that the man doesn’t write his own Tweets.
The crackdown on social media sites came on the heels of the massive 2009 protests known as the Green Revolution. The leaders of Iran continue to deem these online platforms as dangerous tools capable of organizing “anti-government demonstrations.”
Well, social media isn’t quite banned, but Cuban authorities don’t exactly make it easy to access either. Unless you happen to be a well-off politician, a select journalist, or a lucky med student there’s a slim chance you’ll ever be able to connect to the country’s web services from home.
The Obama administration tried to infiltrate the Cuban internet by setting up a Twitter-like social media site in the country called ZunZuneo, but failed miserably.
In Cuba, the only place it’s legal to connect online is through designated internet cafes. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to afford. An hour of unlimited access is $10, while the monthly salary remains a meager $20. In addition to steep costs, the connection is slow enough to inspire a tortoise to motion.
The Ukrainian crisis, coupled with the Kremlin’s incursion into Crimea, spurred the Russian government into censoring a variety of news websites. Any digital outlet bent on covering the conflict was immediately blacklisted by Vladimir Putin. On Friday, the Kremlin put forth yet another arbitrary law, allowing prosecutors to continue censorship without the mandate of a court decision.
Citizens were shocked to learn that one of the country’s longest running and most renowned news sites, Lenta.ru, was blacklisted. Russians themselves aren’t quite ready yet to accept this casualty in the propaganda war. Word has it that tips on how to sidestep the ban are circulating on social media.
Extra Oddball: New Hampshire?
Okay okay, online access and social media usage aren’t banned in this New England state. Nevertheless, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and three voters are currently challenging a specific law on internet censorship.
To read the fine print, voters are forbidden from taking “a digital image or photograph of his or her marked ballot and distributing or sharing the image via social media or by any other means.”
The penalty for doing this? Cough up a thousand dollars.
Educating ourselves about digital censorship is important. Parts of the world that experience invasive regulations might seem remote–or too-far removed from the daily hustle of our many tweetings and status updates to warrant real concern–but the relevance of the matter is closer to home than we may think.
The countries (and state) listed above are but a handful of many. Our privilege to explore the internet is a freedom that we must continue to defend at all costs.
Whenever the Federal Communication Commission makes a new amend, our ears should be peeled. Whenever a country limits its citizens from accessing and understanding information, we too should feel affected. In a globally connected world where many lines of communication are intertwined, we should defend our rights to navigate the digital frontiers.