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The University of Michigan (U-M) released a gloomy report about growing Internet censorship on Tuesday, warning that even countries with high liberty ratings from human rights advocates like Freedom House are censoring Internet content with increasingly heavy hands.

Even the famously “nice” Scandinavian nations like Norway, regarded as the freest country in the world, have moved to “extremely aggressive” controls on a wide range of content.

According to the “Censored Planet” monitoring tool employed by the U-M, Norway is blocking content from human rights websites such as Human Rights Watch, in addition to tighter controls over material such as online gambling and pornography.

Censored Planet is a complex system that constantly and automatically scans the Internet for blocked websites and the denial of information requests. The team that developed the system released technical details of its operation along with their new white paper on Internet freedom. The designers said it was important to use an automated system to search the entire Internet for blocks and blacklists because human researchers tend to be “focused on countries already known for censorship, enabling nations that are perceived as freer to fly under the radar.” Conversely, human researchers can also be intimidated out of closely examining the censorship habits of authoritarian regimes.

The unblinking eye of the tireless Censored Planet algorithms made some surprising discoveries about censorship over the past two years. In short, censorship appears to be more pervasive and subtle in free countries than residents of those countries would like to believe, and the “groundwork” exists for even more stringent controls on information in the future.

“What we see from our study is that no country is completely free,” study author and U-M computer science doctoral candidate Ram Sundara Rama said.

“We’re seeing that many countries start with legislation that compels ISPs to block something that’s obviously bad like child pornography or pirated content,” Raman elaborated. “But once that blocking infrastructure is in place, governments can block any websites they choose, and it’s a very opaque process. That’s why censorship measurement is crucial, particularly continuous measurements that show trends over time.”

Censored Planet’s monitoring appears to be more focused on Internet traffic than social media posts. The U-M authors were more concerned about the potential for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block traffic following the repeal of Net Neutrality than the actual account bans, stealth bans, throttling, deplatforming, and highly contentious “content warnings” that infuriate many users of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. They might also have considered that type of censorship too blatant to be worth discussing in the context of a report about the skullduggery Censored Planet excels at uncovering.

The U-M team studied 103 countries and found Internet censorship increasing in all of them. Some of this information control was so subtle that its targets appear unaware their communications were being monitored and controlled. In essence, Internet users do not realize that they are not seeing all of the material their searches should be returning.

The Censored Planet team identified 15 major “censorship events” from 2018 to 2020, meaning significant surges of banning and blocking that were usually tied to major real-world news events, such as elections and protests. Of those 15 events, 10 of them had never been detected by activists or reported by international media before. In essence, ten of the fifteen largest censorship events since 2018 went largely unnoticed by the people censored.

The team’s results were most surprising in countries that enjoy top freedom ratings. Savvy users are on the alert for content blocking in places like China or Russia but not in, say, Poland, Italy, or Norway:

Norway, for example — tied with Finland and Sweden as the world’s freest country, according to Freedom House —passed laws requiring ISPs to block some gambling and pornography content beginning in early 2018. Censored Planet, however, uncovered that ISPs in Norway are imposing what the study calls “extremely aggressive” blocking across a broader range of content, including human rights websites like Human Rights Watch and online dating sites like Match.com.

Similar tactics show up in other countries, often in the wake of large political events, social unrest or new laws. News sites like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, for example, were aggressively blocked in Japan when Osaka hosted the G20 international economic summit in June 2019. News, human rights and government sites saw a censorship spike in Poland after protests in July 2019, and same-sex dating sites were aggressively blocked in India after the country repealed laws against gay sex in September 2018.

“We imagine the internet as a global medium where anyone can access any resource, and it’s supposed to make communication easier, especially across international borders. We find that if this continues, that won’t be true anymore. We fear this could lead to a future where every country has a completely different view of the internet,” Raman said on behalf of the team.

U-M Assistant Professor Roya Ensafi, the lead developer of Censored Planet, warned in early November that Russia has created a “national infrastructure for Internet censorship” of incredible size and power that could be copied by other nations eager to control what their citizens see and hear. 

According to Ensafi, Russia’s carefully constructed censorship architecture can support a blocklist of websites many times larger than all of the other blocklists in the world combined. At least Russian ISPs are “surprisingly transparent about this blocking,” displaying warnings to Internet users when they attempt to access material banned by Russia’s Internet regulatory agency, Roskomnadzor.

“Russia’s censorship architecture is a blueprint, and perhaps a forewarning of how national censorship policies could be implemented in many other countries that have similarly diverse ISP ecosystems to Russia’s,” Ensafi warned.

Censored Planet found that even encrypted Internet traffic is censored with increasing frequency, which suggests the HTTPS protocol traditionally employed for “secure” Internet communications is not quite as secure as it used to be.

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