World Day Against Cyber Censorship

What’s happening? Today is the World Day Against Cyber Censorship which highlights the ongoing fight for free speech against countries attempting to censor internet content. Established in 2008 by Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International, this day places government surveillance in the spotlight and recognises the individual achievements toward promoting free expression on the internet.

Some background – Government cyber censorship involves the use of internet control and surveillance to limit speech online, silence political opponents, control communication and suppress select groups. Strong levels of surveillance are apparent in China, for example, where the government has blocked certain websites and cracked down on virtual private networks (VPNs) to create arguably the largest censoring operation in the world.

Censorship is not only confined to countries with comprehensive state control, however, as citizens belonging to some of the world’s “freest” countries are also at risk. A study from the University of Michigan analysed data from an automated censorship tracking system – called Censored Planet – and discovered that censorship was on the rise in 103 countries including Italy, Japan and Norway.

Covid-19 censorship – The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue, providing governments with an excuse to expand surveillance powers, the annual ‘Freedom on the Net’ report has found. The Israeli government, for example, attempted to instigate unlimited mobile-phone tracking on Covid-19 carriers, but was eventually prohibited by the country’s Supreme Court.

Governments have also used censorship to suppress vital information related to Covid-19. Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit for the freedom of information, has already restored multiple websites dedicated to critical Covid-19 data after they were shut down by their own governments.

Fighting back – Solutions are being created to combat censorship. A team of computer scientists led by University of Maryland researchers has developed a machine learning tool to bypass censorship programmes that monitor sensitive keywords by breaking up and sending data in different configurations, making it harder to detect.

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