Innovative hardware and software is keeping track of government censorship, disclosing the increasing spectre of an internet iron curtain. 

As the spread of technology, especially communications technology, continues its march, the distribution of accessible information has swollen. With more of us using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the internet has become the new battleground for ideas. However, this media transformation has witnessed a groundswell of attempts by governments globally to censor information it deems threatening to national security and/or blasphemous (no name but two examples).

A notorious example of censorship was recently reported by American magazine Wired, which explored the controversial case of The Awami Workers Party in Pakistan, a new left-wing party many expected to jolt what has become a stagnant political climate in the South Asian country. Nevertheless, with July’s election beckoning, things took a worrying turn, mirroring global trends, when a series of reports materialised that people couldn’t access websites of opposition parties, including the Awami Workers Party.

Pakistan ranks low in freedom, and it has a long history of internet censorship, being ranked ‘not free’ in Freedom House’s ‘Freedom on the Net’ report for 2017. In the early 2010s there was a ban on YouTube lasting more than 3 years. The country also blocked Facebook and other Web sites, targeting content deemed threatening to national security and/or blasphemous.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a government of Pakistan agency responsible for the establishment, operation and maintenance of telecommunications in Pakistan, has been responsible for banning legions of sites in the country. A notable example is the website of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a secular party in the country, which has faced various attacks from the Pakistan Army. What is becoming apparent is that free expression for opposition parties in Pakistan to mobilise politically is increasingly in peril.

Nighat Dad, a Pakistani digital rights lawyer and activist, has worked tirelessly to stem the tide of internet censorship in her country. Aware of the dangers that online censorship in the country poses to democracy, she looked to the civil society group called NetBlocks for help. The civil society group works to collect evidence to assess the censorship of internet content.

Knowing full well the dangers of censorship, a worry that former US President Harry Truman noted in the 1940s, Dad is aware that once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go. That government becomes, as Truman posited, one engaged in “increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

Digital rights lawyer and activist Nighat Dad works with data to fight back against internet censorship

The Founder of NetBlocks, Alp Toker, has stressed that the procedure used by the civil society group is quite simple. When reports are received that a website or platform is being censored, he passes on tracking tools to those affected by the blocks. The most simple of those is the web probe, which is activated by clicking a link on a browser and used to confirm reports of blockages and locate the extent of the censorship. The probe accesses any number of preset domains – which can include social platforms like Facebook and Twitter and messaging apps. The scans return a list of banned sites, including which areas.

“These are people from their own community standing up to collect evidence about something that is affecting them personally, and their right to free and fair elections,” Toker stated. “These are people from their own community standing up to collect evidence about something that is affecting them personally, and their right to free and fair elections.”

Netblocks also has a differential tool providing it the ability to operate remotely, identifying instances where the internet has gone down completely or tapered substantially. The tool was used to pinpoint shutdowns in Kenya’s controversial elections in 2017, including the Catalonian independence referendum in October, in which 4,000 and 5,000 people experienced an internet blackout during polling.

Netblocks believes that open, secure and reliable connectivity is essential for rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association

Always scanning for bloackages, NetBlocks also has a network of always-on hardware probes. In Turkey, for example, Toker has a slew of hardware probes directly plugged into routers across the country. In countries where NetBlocks has less presence, there are usually a few  probes, sufficient to warn when a big website disappears offline.

NetBlocks has also gone so far to develop a tool that estimates the cost censorship is having on a country’s economy. NetBlocks estimated that the total cost Sri Lanka’s economy after it shutdown WhatsApp and Viber was as high as $30 million (£22.6m). Moreover, it estimates that censorship incurred a whopping total global cost of $2.4 billion, and across 10 African countries they led to loss of $237 million USD over 236 days.

The Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST) will cover shutdowns affecting social media, key content platforms and full Internet blackouts using key indicators relating to the global digital economy.

Built around a methodology devised by the Brookings Institution, the tool estimates economic cost of internet shutdowns, mobile data blackouts and social media restrictions using regional indicators from the World Bank, ITU, Eurostat and U.S. Census.

Focusing squarely on Turkey in the coming future, especially after the country’s controversial June election, Toker says that things are changing. “The most egregious and most broadly harmful problems have been resolved,” he says. In the coming years, however, with various countries such as Pakistan, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine declining their internet freedom, as reported by the Freedom of the Net Report, Toker and Netblocks will surely be at front line of censorship reporting. “If we don’t act now, shutdowns and restrictions of access will continue to rise and the economic cost will increase over the next few years. At a time where developing countries can benefit the most from Internet access for economic growth, education and health, we cannot let this situation become the new normal.”