Internet Realities Watch, vol. 1

Censorship, Disconnection, and Control in Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Sudan, Congo, Gabon
Blog Post
Jan. 11, 2019

Democratic policymakers once envisioned that a global and open internet would be a permanent fixture of our digital world, but that ideal is fading away. The reality is that a sovereign and controlled model for the internet is spreading: content censorship, tight sovereign control of communication infrastructure, pervasive surveillance, and other authoritarian principles are finding their way online. Some countries, like the United States or the United Kingdom, have clearly taken to defending a global and open internet, whereas countries like China, Iran, and Russia have clearly taken to undermining it.

That’s in part why the 50 nations who have yet to take a clear stance one way or the other are looking to world powers for what to do. In this way, domestic policies—not just international practices and agreements—will shape the future of the internet, as global powers attempt to influence others to follow in their footsteps. (Such is the case with the spread of authoritarianism itself.) To better catalogue changing domestic policies on and around the internet, in a wide range of countries both influential and influenced, this will be the first in a series of blog posts tracking the spread of authoritarian internet policies and practices by which governments control their citizens through technology.

This particular catalogue of events stretches back to mid-December 2018.

Russia: Three federal lawmakers drafted legislation to ban the online publication of materials which “blatantly disrespect Russian society, the state, official state symbols, the Russian Constitution, and law enforcement agencies.” Internet regulator Roskomnadzor has proposed a law that would allow it to block search engines that don’t comply with state censorship requests. A third proposed law aims to build out a domestic internet unique to Russia, where the state controls domain name systems and other mechanisms for traffic routing. This is all part of Russia’s larger projection of influence in international norm-setting on cyberspace issues, insofar as its domestic policies hold sway over what is globally acceptable for controlling and censoring the internet within a state’s borders.

India: The Home Ministry gave 10 government agencies new authorities to surveil the internet within the country—including the ability to intercept, monitor, and decrypt information from any computer. India’s Congress’ president has called Prime Minister Narendra Modi an “insecure dictator” as the policy receives much criticism.

Saudi Arabia: The government censored an episode of Netflix’s Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj that critiqued the Crown Prince. It claimed the episode violated Saudi cybercrime law.

Vietnam: A cybersecurity law passed in June by Vietnam’s National Assembly went into effect on the first day of the new year. It requires social media companies to locally store user data (“data localization”), to hand over information at a government request, and to delete any offensive or “toxic” materials. Members of the U.S. Congress and the likes of Amnesty International have criticized the law’s sweeping powers. On January 9th, the Vietnamese government claimed that Facebook violated the law when it reportedly didn’t respond to page takedown requests.

Sudan: At the end of 2018, the government partially or totally blocked access to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook amid protests over rising bread prices, rising inflation, and fuel shortages. Numerous people were shot and killed during these protests, and the shutdown is speculated in part to prevent information about the protests from leaking to the outside world.*

Congo: On January 1, the government in Congo cut internet and SMS connections across the country in anticipation of results from a contentious presidential election. Meanwhile, the just-announced results of the election have received criticism of possible backdoor political deals that undermined the legitimacy of the voting process.

Gabon: On January 7, the government shut down internet and broadcasting services after an attempted coup against the Gabonian President. This and the incident in Congo are indicative of a growing problem, by which governments disconnect their domestic internet networks from the global system due to unrest or other political motivations.

In looking at these events, it’s clear that governments are increasingly using “cybercrime” as justification for censoring politically undesirable content. This is not exactly a novel approach—world powers like China have practiced a similar approach for the better part of a decade domestically and via proposals in the United Nations. Further, these recent events also underscore how governments who desire sweeping online censorship authority are no longer satisfied with merely asking companies to remove information; they want the ability to entirely block content on their own (e.g., building their own domestic internets, or even disconnecting their domestic networks from the global internet altogether).

Every country is struggling with cybersecurity challenges, and in the face of malicious code flowing across borders, the authoritarian rhetoric of tightly controlling the internet for “cybersecurity” purposes can be compelling. So, in addition to tracking policies like those above, democratic policymakers would do well to build a cohesive narrative about managing the internet’s insecurity while still championing its freedom and openness that bolsters economics, advances knowledge, and increases state power.

*This incident was added on 1/11/19 after initial publication of the blog post.