The Year of the Blockade

This year, more than ever, the internet saw dark days of censorship. As this trend grows, so do the causes that create it, mainly social unrest – the nightmare of authorities. The absurdity of it all is creating a vicious circle in which one causes the other.


At the beginning of this month, free speech and privacy activists from all around the world have celebrated the one year anniversary of the Edward Snowden revelations that showed a world under surveillance by the NSA and the GCHQ. While we are still dealing with the effects and developments of this story, the passing year has also demonstrated again and again to the citizens of the world that their governments would not hesitate to not only spy on them, but to also block their access to parts of the internet - easy as a push of a button.

Blocking the internet is not a new phenomenon. One of the first to use technology to limit the access to information, curtail freedom of speech and monitor internet activity was China. The chinese government blocked Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in 2009. The Twitter and Facebook bans took place after a peaceful protest by Uighurs, China's Muslim ethnic minority, which broke into deadly riots in Xinjiang. At the same time, China was joined by Iran as it blocked Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on and off (usually off) since they were banned in 2009 following Iran's contentious presidential election.

Social Unrest as a Catalyst of Internet Censorship

Two years later, in the wake of a global economic crisis, the Arab Spring demonstrated how panicky governments are easy to pull the shutdown trigger. Twitter, which was used as a tool to organize protests during the Arab Spring, was shut down partially or completely by several governments in the region in 2011, including Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Cameroon, and Malawi, according to the OpenNet Initiative. Belarus has also blocked major social networks, including Twitter, in 2011 to quell anti-government protests. That same year, when a series of riots swept the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to ban people from using social-networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook, although he didn't go through with it.

It seems that the increasing instances of internet access being partly blocked is deeply connected with social unrest, politics and protest. This year alone we saw internet censorship rise to a new level. In February, Venezuela used widespread censorship of social networking sites during anti-government protests. A short while later, there were major internet disruptions in the weeks leading up to country-wide protests and the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. Finally, in a fit of totalitarian anger, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan virtually blocked all Twitter and YouTube access in Turkey, ten days ahead of regional elections.

Since then, China has blocked many websites as the government tightened Internet controls ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Iran re-blocked YouTube on April this year. Serbia has been battered by a wave of terrifying Internet censorship, which has included denial-of-service attacks, arrests over Facebook discussions of the flood casualties, and ISPs mysteriously shuttering websites critical of the government. Thailand's military junta has already blocked more than 100 webpages and will send officials to Singapore and Japan in coming days to seek tighter censorship of social media from Facebook, Google Inc. and instant messenger services. Recently, the deputy director of Russia’s chief censorship agency, Roscomnadzor, has threatened that the government could block Twitter or Facebook entirely, in a matter of a few minutes work.

The plague spreads globally

We see all these growing threats to our human digital rights as a very disturbing trend. We also try to play a significant role in the challenge to strengthen the Internet for free expression through security & anonymity. The Internet may be approaching 3 billion users, but arguably its founding principles have never been more under threat. And it seems that what was once the old censorship of governments in their fight against information that leads to social unrest is now trickling down to the digital world.

And here is the thing about social unrest – It's growing worldwide. At the end of 2013, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) measured the risk of social unrest in 150 countries around the world. According to its ratings, 65 countries (43% of the 150) will be at a high or very high risk of social unrest in 2014 and we have already seen some of them erupting into protests over the first half of thus year. Compared with five years ago, 19 more countries are now in the high-risk categories. The Middle East, North Africa, Southern Europe and the Balkans are all particularly vulnerable.

The common catalyst to this is the 2008-09 financial crisis and its aftermath. The Econonmist says:

“Economic distress is almost a necessary condition for serious social or political instability, but it is not a sufficient one [...] Declines in income and high unemployment are not always followed by unrest. Only when economic trouble is accompanied by other elements of vulnerability is there a high risk of instability. Such factors include wide income-inequality, poor government, low levels of social provision, ethnic tensions and a history of unrest. Of particular importance in sparking unrest in recent times appears to have been an erosion of trust in governments and institutions: a crisis of democracy".

This crisis of democracy seems to exist in a loop these days. The more Snowden revelations, internet blockades and human digital rights abuses that are revealed, the more the people's trust in their Governments is eroded, increasing the chance of social unrest. The more this chance grows, the more Governments crack down on the digital rights of their citizens. As this absurd trend grows, one question comes to mind:

Have you prepared yourself?