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Photo by Sage Ross, public domain/CC0.

Government censorship is a significant obstacle to the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission to promote the dissemination of free knowledge around the world. The Wikimedia Foundation deplores efforts to block or censor information anywhere and has been studying censorship efforts by various regimes on our projects and other places online. In late 2015, members of the Foundation’s legal team participated in talks at Yale Law School that provided more information on how individuals, governments, and websites are responding to this issue.

Eric Freedman talk on censorship at Yale Law School

On November 17, 2015, Aeryn Palmer of the Wikimedia Foundation attended a lecture on “Suppressing Cyber-dissent and the Limits of Human Rights Activism”, sponsored by the Yale Information Society Project (ISP). The speaker, Professor Eric Freedman of the Michigan State University School of Journalism, outlined the ways in which the Internet may look increasingly open, but remains closed to politically controversial ideas or opposition rhetoric. Freedman noted that evolving technology may provide new and powerful ways for dissenting voices to elude government censorship and surveillance. However, these same advancements make it easier for governments to block content of which they disapprove.  

According to Freedom House’s recent report, Freedom on the Net 2015, the Internet is becoming less free. More countries are censoring information about certain topics online, such as blasphemy, government corruption, LGBT rights, and opposition politics. Governments are seeking to expand their ability to surveil Internet users, and to ban or undermine encryption tools.

Activists have expanded the use of social media to broadcast their ideas. Many also use circumvention tools such as Virtual Private Networks or encrypted messaging services. However, as they have become more and more tech-savvy, the governments they hope to elude are advancing in the same manner. Better technology, Freedman noted, is a double-edged sword. It allows authorities to gather information on targets using tactics such as infiltrating social media accounts and creating phony mirror sites. They may also block access to opposition websites, or disable them entirely using denial-of-service attacks.

Freedman is not optimistic about global Internet freedom increasing in the short term, and WMF shares his concerns. However, he sometimes finds hope in the strangest places. The lecture ended with a short video clip of the president of Turkmenistan falling off his horse after a race. State media omitted the fall from its reports of the event, and all spectators were told to delete any videos. Instead, some of them put the video online. It went viral and became one small example of ordinary citizens defying a government mandate to suppress information. “It may not be much,” Freedman said, in mildly optimistic conclusion. “But nowadays, in some parts of the world, it’s something.”

Presentation at Yale ISP regarding online censorship

On December 3, 2015, Zhou Zhou of the Wikimedia Foundation gave a presentation at Yale ISP about Internet Censorship. Zhou first provided an overview  of censorship tools available to governments such as DNS poisoning, IP blocking, and speed throttling. For a website, the first part of responding to online censorship is diagnosing that the site has been blocked using techniques such as on-the-ground reports as well as server and client side logging. Thereafter, it is important for any website to consider the various technical and non-technical counter-measures available including promotion of some of the methods identified by Prof. Freedman. Finally, Zhou discussed specific censorship problems Wikipedia has faced in countries around the world and the various methods available to Wikipedia to measure and respond to censorship going forward.

Zhou Zhou, Legal Counsel
Aeryn Palmer, Legal Counsel
Wikimedia Foundation

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