A year-long study by the OpenNet Initiative, detailed at a conference in Oxford, England, examined the practices of 41 countries to learn about online government surveillance and censorship. The results? Where five years ago only a handful of states were filtering Internet content, the study found 25 of the countries it examined were engaged in state-mandated filtering and censorship of online content, and the filtering is becoming more sophisticated over time, entailing not only outright blocks on particular Web sites or topics, but bans on applications like Skype and Google Maps.
“Online censorship is growing in scale, scope, and sophistication around the world,” said John Palfrey, Harvard Law School professor and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in a statement. “The regulation of the Internet has continued to grow over time—not surprising, given the importance of the medium. As Internet censorship and surveillance grow, there’s reason to worry about the implications of these trends for human rights, political activism, and economic development around the world.”
The study found that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China are among the most active filtering regimes, blockking not only a wide range of topics but also content related to those topics. Burma, China, Iran, and Pakistan, and South Korea engage in extensive filtering on national security topics, with South Korea in particular censoring content regarding North Korea. Burna, China, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam perform politically-motivated filtering, while Saudi Arabia, Iran, Tunisia, and Yemen also engage in substantial social content filtering.
The ONI selected the 41 countries based on where it could safely learn the most above online government surveillance and censorship: for instance, North Korea and Cuba were omitted due to security concerns. Similarly, the study did not examine filtering in the United States or Western European nations because content filtering in those countries tends to be performed by private organizations, rather than the government, and focuses on issues like copyright enforcement and protecting children from obscene materials.
The study found three primary rationales for government-mandated content filtering: limiting the voice of politic opposition, enforcing social norms, and concerns over national security.
The ONI study did not uncover evidence of filtering in fourteen countries it studied, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Malaysia, Nepal, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.