Internet censorship: making the hidden visible


17-10-2016

Despite being founded on ideals of freedom and openness, censorship on the internet is rampant, with more than 60 countries engaging in some form of state-sponsored censorship. A research project at the University of Cambridge is aiming to uncover the scale of this censorship, and to understand how it affects users and publishers of information.

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Censorship over the internet can potentially achieve unprecedented scale.
- Sheharbano Khattak


For all the controversy it caused, Fitna is not a great film. The 17-minute short, by the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, was a way for him to express his opinion that Islam is an inherently violent religion. Understandably, the rest of the world did not see things the same way. In advance of its release in 2008, the film received widespread condemnation, especially within the Muslim community.

When a trailer for Fitna was released on YouTube, authorities in Pakistan demanded that it be removed from the site. YouTube offered to block the video in Pakistan, but would not agree to remove it entirely. When YouTube relayed this decision back to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the decision was made to block YouTube.

Although Pakistan has been intermittently blocking content since 2006, a more persistent blocking policy was implemented in 2011, when porn content was censored in response to a media report that highlighted Pakistan as the top country in terms of searches for porn. Then, in 2012, YouTube was blocked for three years when a video, deemed blasphemous, appeared on the website. Only in January this year was the ban lifted, when Google, which owns YouTube, launched a Pakistan-specific version, and introduced a process by which governments can request the blocking of access to offending material.

All of this raises the thorny issue of censorship. Those censoring might raise objections to material on the basis of offensiveness or incitement to violence (more than a dozen people died in Pakistan following widespread protests over the video uploaded to YouTube in 2012). But when users aren’t able to access a particular site, they often don’t know whether it’s because the site is down, or if some force is preventing them from accessing it. How can users know what is being censored and why?

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Image: Barbed wire
Credit: Hernán Piñera


Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge
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The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)