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.