Wikileaks and Internet Censorship


Using data from the Global Integrity Index, we put a U.S. court’s recent order to block access to anti-corruption site into context. In summary: The shutdown is unheard of in the West, and has only been seen in a handful of the most repressive regimes. Good thing it doesn’t work very well.

Starting in 2007, Global Integrity added specific questions about Internet censorship to the Integrity Indicators, which are a set of 304 questions addressing the practice of anti-corruption in national governments. We have always held that a free and critical media is an essential component of good governance; adding an analysis of Internet censorship was an overdue refinement.

We asked two questions:

  1. Are Internet users prevented from reaching political material on the Internet?
  2. Are content creators prevented from posting political material to the Internet?

The results of this work are generally encouraging. In examining a diverse group of 50 countries, a majority earn a full score on both counts. Freedom of speech is a widely held right. Moreover, Internet censorship is difficult and is often ineffective in suppressing political activity. Most governments, aside from targeted libel restrictions, don’t bother regulating online political speech at all.

The Many Flavors of Internet Censorship

A few countries, however, are deeply committed to trying to make censorship work. On this list in 2007 are Algeria, China, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Russia and Thailand. Each has it’s own flavor to the repression of online speech — Internet censorship is still in an experimentation phase, and even the most aggressive approaches don’t seem to work very well.

  • Algeria has no firewalls or filters, but outlaws hosting content critical of the government, and monitors chat rooms for political speech.

  • China is home to 1.3 billion people and has a highly scalable technological approach based onextensive content filters known satirically as the Great Firewall of China. China is also uses technology to discourage content creation, deploying cute animated police characters (pictured above) to remind Internet users they are being watched.

  • Egypt has limited technical means to discourage content creation, so it relies on an old-fashioned technique — harassment, beatings and arrests. Hala Al-Masry used to publish in a blog entitled Cops Without Boundaries” until the government harassed her, “unknown people” beat her father, and she and her husband were arrested and signed a commitment to shut down the blog. Similar techniques haveshut down websites of opposition parties.

  • Kazakhstan has little Internet capacity. The government uses this to mask censorship — rather than block sites, it slows them down, frustrating the users of political content into looking elsewhere. The KNB (formerly the KGB) has a special program called Bolat, which slows down, but does not stop, access to sites of terrorist organizations. Popular opinion holds that it is used to slow opposition party sites as well.

  • Russia has a mixed bag of state persecution and neglect, allowing a rare opening for free expression in a country with highly restricted media. However, the sophistication of the attacks that do occur is frightening, with hackers singling out individual online targets. For instance, the website of Ekho Moskvy, a liberal Moscow radio station critical of the Kremlin, was brought down by a DDoS attack last year.

  • Thailand’s military junta moved aggressively to shut down message boards and the formerly-ruling party Thai Rak Thai website after taking over the country in 2006. But the junta’s censorship cops work to keep the thinnest appearance of tolerance — message boards were allowed to reopen under the condition that they did not “provoke any misunderstandings.” Message received.

So how does the United States fit into this picture? The court order that muzzled (covered here) was prompted not by the government but by a bank registered in the Cayman Islands. The bank used American courts and a compliant domain registrar to scrub the URL from the Internet. It is extremely unlikely that this decision will stand up in an appeals court, but the larger point is that there is no reason this case should even be fought. Wikileaks should not need a legal team to explain to the courts that the First Amendment requires freedom of speech.

The whole event seems to encapsulate the constant criticism of governance in the United States: that the government has been captured by corporate interests, and that the world-leading rule of law and technocratic mechanisms in place can be hijacked to serve as tools for narrow, wealthy interests.

Online Censorship: Sounds good, but it never works.

While there is much diversity in the style of Internet censorship among the world’s worst offenders, one common thread unites them: Internet censorship doesn’t work. Cut off one site, and a thousand more pop up. In China, censorship online is sparking criticism that off-line censorship has rarely seen.

So went offline, but Wikileaks mirror sites hosted overseas hold the same content, and the original site is still up and running from Sweden ( without its easier-to-type URL. As it turns out, shutting down Wikileaks-the-website has focused our attention on Wikileaks-the-idea, which is spreading at the speed of light.