Global Internet Censorship Reaching New Levels In 2018

CYBERSPACE—Passage of the controversial FOSTA bill by the United States Senate last week has set off new fears of internet censorship in the U.S., fears that seem as if they are already being realized with several major online platforms moving to ban “offensive” language or images, as well as any content that could be construed as promoting “sex trafficking.” 

But the FOSTA “anti-sex-trafficking” bill is only the domestic version of what appears to be materializing this year as a global wave of online censorship extending from Europe to the Middle East to South Africa and elsewhere.

According to a report by a former Google policy manager, published in the European edition of Politico, the European Commission recently threatened to pass legislation mandating that internet platforms immediately remove “extremist and other objectionable content.”

And major platforms such as Google itself have shifted from opposing internet censorship to proudly touting their cooperation with governments in their attempt to rid the internet of “objectionable” material, William Echikson, now head of the Digital Forum at the Center for European Policy Studies, wrote in his Politico article.

According to Google’s own semi-annual “transparency report,” requests by governments to remove content reached an all-time high in 2017, the latest date for which data was available, with nearly 20,000 such requests recorded in the first six months of that year—though just 831 of those requests came from governments in the United States.

The first six months of 2015 saw fewer than 3,500 government requests for takedowns, according to the Google report. Removal requests by governments specifically targeting adult content also spiked over the past two years, according to Google’s transparency report. 

At the same time, the European Parliament continues this month to debate a bill that would require internet services to install automated content filters designed to block material that may violate copyrights. Because the automated filters don’t recognize such limitations on copyright as fair use, and are often easily manipulated by hackers and censors, activists have dubbed these content filters “censorship machines.”

In South Africa, the federal parliament passed a bill on March 6 allowing the country’s Films and Publications Board to regulate and even ban user-generated content on YouTube and other, similar services.

In Egypt, online censorship has long been practiced by the government but is now set to become enshrined in an actual law. The country’s parliament is set to pass a new “cybercrime” bill that would allow the government to “order the censorship of websites (when) evidence arises that a website broadcasting from inside or outside the state has published any phrases, photos or films, or any promotional material or the like which constitute a crime.”

Internet censorship is so tight in Kazakhstan that late last year, the country’s president signed a law that prohibits users from posting anonymous comments online, while the National Security Committee—Kazakhstan’s equivalent of the CIA—was last year given control over the national telecommunications network that is the country’s only point of access to the internet.

And in Turkey, internet censorship is so complete, according to Turkish tech journalist Ahmet Sabanci, that use of workarounds such as Virtual Proxy Networks and other forms of disguising IP addresses has simply become routine for internet users in the country.

While the United States has not yet reached the levels of censorship seen in some other countries, by gutting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—which protected online platforms from liability for user content—the U.S. Congress appears to have opened the door to new, restrictive measures. 

“It’s easy to see the impact that this ramp-up in liability will have on online speech,” the longtime online civil liberties group known as the Electronic Frontier Foundation warmed in an article published following the Senate FOSTA vote. “Facing the risk of ruinous litigation, online platforms will have little choice but to become much more restrictive in what sorts of discussion—and what sorts of users—they allow, censoring innocent people in the process.”