The Anti-Information Age

How governments are reinventing censorship in the 21st century

Two beliefs safely inhabit the canon of contemporary thinking about journalism. The first is that the Internet is the most powerful force disrupting the news media. The second is that the Internet and the communication and information tools it has spawned—like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook—are shifting power from governments to civil society and to individual bloggers, netizens, or citizen journalists.

It is hard to disagree with these two beliefs. Yet they obscure evidence that governments are having as much success as the Internet in disrupting independent media and determining what information reaches society. Moreover, in many poor countries or in those with autocratic regimes, government actions are more important than the Internet in defining how information is produced and consumed, and by whom.

Illustrating these points is a curious paradox: Censorship is flourishing in the information age. In theory, new technologies make it more difficult, and ultimately impossible, for governments to control the flow of information. Some have argued that the birth of the Internet foreshadowed the death of censorship. In 1993, John Gilmore, an Internet pioneer, told Time, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

Today, governments are routing around the liberating effects of the Internet. Like entrepreneurs, many are relying on innovation and imitation. In Hungary, Ecuador, Turkey, Kenya, and elsewhere, officials are mimicking autocracies like Russia, Iran, or China by redacting critical news and building state media brands. They are also creating more subtle tools to complement the blunt instruments of attacking journalists.

As a result, the Internet’s promise of open access to independent and diverse sources of information is a reality mostly for the minority of humanity living in mature democracies.

How is this happening? The Internet seems capable of redrafting any equation of power in which information is a variable. But this turns out not to be a universal law. When we started to map examples of censorship, we found many brazen cases in plain sight. Yet more surprising is how much is hidden. The scope of censorship is hard to appreciate for several reasons. First, some tools for controlling the media are masquerading as market disruptions. Second, in many places Internet usage and censorship are rapidly expanding in tandem. Third, while the Internet is viewed as a global phenomenon, acts of censorship can seem parochial or national—in a word, isolated. Evidence suggests otherwise.

In Venezuela, to take one example, all three factors are in play. Internet usage is among the fastest-growing in the world, even as the government pursues an aggressive but largely imperceptible program of censorship. The state’s methods include gaining influence over independent media through purchases using shell companies and phantom buyers—a tactic used elsewhere. Tamoa Calzadilla, the former investigations editor at Últimas Noticias, Venezuela’s largest newspaper by circulation, resigned last year after anonymous buyers took control of the paper, and she was pressured to change a story to align with government views.

“This is not your classic censorship, where they put a soldier in the door of the newspaper and assault the journalists,” Calzadilla told us. “Instead, they buy up the newspaper, they sue the reporters and drag them into court, they eavesdrop on your phone and email communications, and then broadcast them on state television. This is censorship for the 21st century.”

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Traditional censorship was an exercise of cut and paste. Government agents inspected the content of newspapers, magazines, books, movies, or news broadcasts, often prior to release, and suppressed or altered them so that only information judged acceptable would reach the public.

When journalism went online in the 1990s, filtering, blocking, and hacking replaced scissors and black ink. But tech-savvy activists quickly found ways to evade digital censors. For a while it looked like agile and decentralized networks of activists, journalists, and critics had the upper hand against centralized, hierarchical, and unwieldy government bureaucracies. Then governments caught up. Many went from spectators in the digital revolution to sophisticated early adopters of technologies that allowed them to monitor content, activists, and journalists, and direct the flow of information.

No place shows the contradictions of this contest on as grand a scale as China does. The country with the most Internet users and the fastest-growing connected population is also the world’s most ambitious censor. Of the 3 billion Internet users on the planet, 20 percent live in China (10 percent live in the U.S.). The government maintains the “Great Firewall” to block unacceptable content, including foreign news sites. An estimated 2 million censors police the Internet and the activities of users. Yet a 2014 BBC poll found that 76 percent of Chinese reported feeling free from government surveillance. This was the highest rate of the 17 countries surveyed.

China is unapologetic about cracking down on critical media coverage, but authorities also censor in ways that are subtle and hard for the public to see. In Hong Kong, where it is obligated by treaty to respect a free press, Beijing uses an array of measures to limit independent journalism, including violence against editors and the arrest of reporters. But it has also quietly engineered cyberattacks, the firing of critical reporters and columnists, and the withdrawal of advertising by private companies, including multinationals. The Hong Kong Journalists Association described 2014 as “the darkest [year] for press freedom in several decades.”

An Internet cafe in China's Shanxi province (Reuters)

This combination of traditional and innovative methods has created a more varied menu of censorship than ever before. Stealth censorship appeals to authoritarian governments that want to appear like democracies—or at least not like old-style dictatorships. In illiberal democracies, of which there are a growing number, the government aims to keep a grip on the news media while concealing its fingerprints. A global survey of attacks on the press today shows governments mixing direct and indirect pressures as part of a booming emerging market in information control.

In Hungary, for example, the government’s Media Authority has the power to collect detailed information about journalists as well as advertising and editorial content. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s regime uses fines, taxes, and licensing to pressure critical media, and steers state advertising to friendly outlets. A comprehensive report by several global press freedom organizations concluded that “Hungary's independent media today faces creeping strangulation.”

In Pakistan, the state regulatory authority suspended the license of Geo TV, the most popular channel in the country, after the country’s intelligence services made a defamation claim against the station following the shooting of one of Geo TV’s best-known journalists. The channel was off the air for 15 days starting in June 2014. Pakistani journalists say that self-censorship and bribery are rife.

In Turkey, a recent amendment to the country’s Internet law gave the Telecommunications Directorate the authority to block any website or content “to protect national security and public order, as well as to prevent a crime.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticized for jailing dozens of journalists, and for using tax investigations and huge fines in retaliation for critical coverage. More recently, the government blocked Twitter and other social media, allegedly in response to a corruption scandal that implicated Erdogan and other senior officials.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is remaking the media landscape in the government’s image. In 2014, multiple media outlets were blocked, shuttered, or forced to change their editorial line overnight in response to government pressure. While launching its own media operations, the government approved legislation limiting foreign investment in Russian media. The measure took aim at publications like Vedomosti, a daily newspaper respected for its standards and independence and owned by three foreign media groups: Dow Jones, the Financial Times Group, and Finland’s Sanoma.

If subtle methods fail, or opponents of free speech wish to make a shocking statement themselves, violence is still an option, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, and the beheadings of journalists by ISIS all attest. In October 2014, a Mexican drug gang kidnapped a citizen journalist in Reynosa, María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, and then posted pictures of her lifeless body on her Twitter account.

We now seem a long way from the Arab Spring in 2011, when social media seemed to give democracy activists an advantage against entrenched regimes. As protesters triumphed in Egypt, Google executive and activist Wael Ghonim famously said, “If you want to liberate a government, give them the Internet.” Although the complex dynamics of the uprising went far beyond a “Facebook Revolution,” the term captured a sense that something important had changed.

Matrix: How Governments Censor in the 21st Century
Naím/Bennett/Columbia Journalism Review

Four years later, media freedom in Egypt is under withering assault. Dozens of journalists have been jailed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Amnesty International reported obtaining internal documents that describe a government contract to build a system to spy on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and other social media. A slogan for the Facebook counterrevolution might be: To empower a government, give it the Internet.

The Edward Snowden leaks made clear that the Internet can be a government tool for peering into the lives of citizens. Whether domestic spying in the United States or Great Britain qualifies as censorship is a matter of debate. But the Obama administration’s authorization of secret wiretaps of journalists and aggressive leak prosecutions has had a well-documented chilling effect on national-security reporting. At the very least, electronic snooping by the government means that no journalist reporting on secrets can promise in good conscience to guarantee a source anonymity.

These national-security policies place the United States among other countries, like Russia, that see the Internet as both a threat and a means of control. Rather than hide from charges that they conduct surveillance over the Internet, Russia, India, Australia, and others have written the practice into law.

Journalists fear being swept up in this electronic dragnet, and they are frequently its specific targets. China has hacked foreign journalists’ email accounts, presumably to vacuum up their sources, and broken into the servers of leading U.S. newspapers. The NSA hacked into Al Jazeera. The Colombian government spied on the communications of foreign journalists covering peace talks with rebels. Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency has tracked journalists in the United States. Belarus, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan all routinely monitor reporters’ communications, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The Democracy Report

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, describes the sinister consequences of surveillance in his recent book, The New Censorship. Simon recounts how Iran turned journalists’ reliance on the Internet into a weapon against protesters in 2009. Security agents tortured journalists like Maziar Bahari (the subject of the Jon Stewart film Rosewater) until they divulged their social-media and email passwords, and then combed through their networks, identifying and arresting sources. Iranian officials also created fake Facebook accounts to entrap activists.

One disturbing trend is the banding together of governments to create an Internet that is easier to police. China has advised Iran on how to build a self-contained "halal" Internet. Beijing has also been sharing know-how with Zambia to block web content, according to Reporters Without Borders. Private surveillance firms advertise their wares to countries that want to upgrade their encryption-penetrating software.

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For every government that succeeds in controlling the free flow of information or repressing journalists, there is a counterexample. Courageous and technologically adroit citizens have found ways to override, circumvent, or undermine official controls. Or they are simply willing to run the risk of opposing a government’s claims that it has the sole authority to write history.

But they are fighting a trend in which a growing number of governments are undermining the checks and balances that constrain executive power. From Russia to Turkey, Hungary to Bolivia, leaders are packing the judiciary with loyalists and staging elections that reward allies. In such a political environment, independent media cannot survive for long.

The Internet can redistribute power. But it is naive to assume that there is a simple technological fix for the determination of governments and national leaders to concentrate power and do whatever it takes to keep it. Censorship will rise and fall as technological innovation and the hunger for freedom clash with governments bent on controlling their citizens—starting with what they read, watch, and hear.

This post has been adapted from Moisés Naím and Philip Bennett's article on 21st-century censorship in the Columbia Journalism Review.