Internet Filtering in Authoritarian Regimes

Interesting research: Sebastian Hellmeier, “The Dictator’s Digital Toolkit: Explaining Variation in Internet Filtering in Authoritarian Regimes,” Politics & Policy, 2016 (full paper is behind a paywall):

Abstract: Following its global diffusion during the last decade, the Internet was expected to become a liberation technology and a threat for autocratic regimes by facilitating collective action. Recently, however, autocratic regimes took control of the Internet and filter online content. Building on the literature concerning the political economy of repression, this article argues that regime characteristics, economic conditions, and conflict in bordering states account for variation in Internet filtering levels among autocratic regimes. Using OLS-regression, the article analyzes the determinants of Internet filtering as measured by the Open Net Initiative in 34 autocratic regimes. The results show that monarchies, regimes with higher levels of social unrest, regime changes in neighboring countries, and less oppositional competition in the political arena are more likely to filter the Internet. The article calls for a systematic data collection to analyze the causal mechanisms and the temporal dynamics of Internet filtering.

Posted on January 13, 2017 at 6:48 AM22 Comments


Winter January 13, 2017 6:59 AM

Might I summarize this list as the more unstable an autocratic regime, the more internet filtering it will apply?

This is nothing new. The same can be said of censorship, free press suppression, and murdering political opponents.

User behint company's filter January 13, 2017 7:19 AM

But what about companies/corporates who filter employee’s accesses from office networks to internet? Isn’t is the same?

E.M.H. January 13, 2017 8:19 AM

“But what about companies/corporates who filter employee’s accesses from office networks to internet? Isn’t is the same?”

Before responding, I have to say I actually understand this frustration. When onsite outside my office, I’ve had to deal with this, and needing internet access for things like Technet and the like is necessary at times. Not all internet access is used for goofing off.

But that said, the answer is still “No”, it’s not the same. The difference is that corporate blocks are to manage what happens at work. Authoritarian regime blocks are to control how a citizens lives.

Trent January 13, 2017 8:58 AM

… filter employee’s accesses from office networks to internet? Isn’t is the same?

Only if you see no difference between “the privacy of my own home” and “the privacy of my open plan office under the jurisdiction of my employment contract”.

My Info January 13, 2017 10:33 AM

Re: “Internet Filtering in Authoritarian Regimes”

The entire Internet is a red-light district. If it has to be “filtered” or if you have to “ask” for “unfiltered” access, it is already in the toilet.

The vast majority of “filtered” content is patently offensive pornography such as Playboy, goatse, etc., etc. which objectivizes mostly women for the pleasure of mostly men and really has no redeeming qualities whatsoever that would be upbuilding in any way for society in general.

The rest of us are sick of the sirs and ma’ams, the cheap hotels, the strip clubs, the brothels, the bathhouses, the phone sex, the chat rooms, the meet-up apps like Grindr and Tindr, the Internet pharmacies that sell sex “pheromones” and steroids, the spiking of others’ food and drink with various controlled substances purchased over the internet, the child pornography, all the sex trade conducted over the Internet, the human trafficking and forced prostitution, and so on and so forth.

This was the prevailing lifestyle of the whites in the South of the U.S. before the Civil War and Reconstruction.

vas pup January 13, 2017 11:40 AM

@My Info • January 13, 2017 10:33 AM.
I consider any restrictions/filtering on the part of any Government access to the information(web including)to any content (except open violence, creating explosive at home, etc. in the same direction) as dictatorship approach to adult behavior regulation.
I understood your frustration, but not once I stated on this blog that you may have your own moral/cultural preferences which as rule should NOT be imposed on other adults by laws.
I hope we are living not in theocratic country (like Iran or Saudi Arabia). Then, I’d prefer German paradigm (other European countries as well) when adult men on Sunday have own choice NOT restricted by Government: go to Church(any religion), go to soccer game, bar or brothel.
As soon as no violence/pimping/child involved – that is not Government business. Moreover, it provides higher level of stress reduction, less violent crimes and higher level of mental health of general population than with all those ‘restrictions’ you are suggested for if I understood your point properly.
Sane adult person should have level of autonomy for personal choices which affect that person only and not put extra financial burden on society as a whole, meaning: I may not support particular activities/sexual preferences/substance usage, life style, but that is person’s body which is NOT belongs to the Government, community, etc. That is why I may not morally approve those types of behavior, but neither any other person, no Government has a right to restrict personal choice in those cases.

albert January 13, 2017 12:50 PM

@My Info,
Fortunately, the US has the best ‘protected speech’ laws in the world. Even to most liberal hedonists agree that child pornography, human trafficking and forced prostitution are, and should be, illegal. And they are -seriously- prosecuted. Commercial pornographic websites are subject to strict Federal laws, enforced by the FBI. In many ME countries (with crazy-strict Internet filters), such things, though illegal(that is, against the state religion), aren’t even prosecuted at all. I don’t know what group “the rest of us” represents, but it sounds like folks who want to decide what speech is acceptable and what isn’t. States like this are called ‘fascist’. BTW, you may want to use ‘objectifies’ in the future.
. .. . .. — ….

Ted January 13, 2017 12:57 PM

“Using OLS-regression, the article analyzes the determinants of Internet filtering as measured by the Open Net Initiative in 34 autocratic regimes.”

An Open Net Initiative (ONI) post from December 2014 indicated that ONI would no longer be conducting research, but that their data and reports would remain available to the public. [1] I am wondering if this recent paper is based on ONI’s prior data set, or if the author’s research team has access to ONI’s proprietary internet filtering testing programs. Or if he is working with one of ONI’s partner institutions, like the Citizen’s Lab, the Berkman Center, or the SecDev Group with regards to further research.

The Guardian published an article on a ONI internet censorship data set in 2012. [2] The testing dates for this ONI data set span the years of 2007 to 2012 and provide ratings for 74 countries. The content filtering tests cover four areas: political, social, conflict, and internet tools. Each topic is assigned a score from 0 to 4 (no evidence, selective, substantial, and pervasive). According to the available file, the top scoring countries are Iran, China, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, each with scores ranging from 13 to 15. Just under half of the countries tested, 35, have a score of 0, including the UK, US, Germany, Canada, etc. Further details on each country are available on ONI’s website. [3] Since ONI has not made the raw content data used for filtering or the test results available to the public, [4] I am unsure if these scores are a function of the specifically tested content or of the testing dates.

I am curious how the paper explores the “causal mechanisms and the temporal dynamics” of internet filtering as they relate to the specific “regime characteristics, economic conditions, and conflict in bordering states.” The juxtaposition and analysis of the data sets would be most fascinating.





Pete January 13, 2017 1:05 PM

Companies doing filtering makes good business sense for a number of reasons.
* liability
* wasted time
* security / anti-virus
Companies aren’t paying most people to surf the web as they like.

It isn’t the same as a government performing “moral” filtering for religious reasons (India/Pakistan/UAE/Egypt/Saudi Arabia … and China ) or to block anti-govt content (like Thailand and China and Burma).

One of my websites is blocked by Thailand, Pakistan and parts of India. Don’t know why. Oddly, visiting by IP works fine from those places, but name-based requests are blocked.

K D January 13, 2017 1:09 PM

@My Info: Russia doesn’t only block porn/drugs/political content. For example, sites that sell “forbidden” food (like imported cheese, I’m not kidding) are also forbidden. Once the law is in effect, every government agency or a small-time bureaucrat eventually gets to block anything they want. These noble efforts help with yearly bonuses and promotions but don’t noticeably hamper illegal trade, though. Buying drugs is easier than ever.

vas pup January 13, 2017 3:24 PM

When God created Eve, he asked Adam to choose the wife. The choice was either Eve, or no wife at all.
I just recall this old joke which perfectly illustrates discussion of filtering. In some countries (e.g. North Korea) even now only TV channels are available which generated by the Government. The good opposite example is that Voice of America could broadcast for outside of US customers only or BBC is financed by Government, but Government could not be involved in policy making (Clive could fix me if that is not up to date info).
My vision is that less choices (on anything related to your own life) you have less free you are, and I mean not choice out of less evil but when really good option is present as well for selection. With information filtering you could never make right conclusion on any subject since information with filtered access provided is one-sided. That is like in the programming: logic is good, but input data is bad. Result is wrong.
I can give you as good example having access to at least two ‘alien’ sources of information on the same subject: CNN and FOX for internal issues. What is overlapping part on the same subject – that part of information may have more trust than not overlapping. This is only valid when you are really looking for truth, not confirmation of your own view/bias which you developed emotionally.
At the end: “Lies are religion of slaves and masters. Truth is the god of the free man” (M. Gorky – Russian writer – he died many years ago even before President Putin was born). So, looking for truth is looking for freedom.

Philip Collier January 13, 2017 5:26 PM

All of you commenting that filteted content is just porn or filth must live in some kind of fantasy world.

Where I currently reside, the New York Times is blocked. Bloomberg is blocked. Google is blocked. The BBC is blocked. Sites where people can originate, share and repost data are blocked. These examples provide content far from “red light district” in character, and are targeted because they are part of a free, uncensored press, with social and political content.

Where I currently reside, and in the repressive countries I visit, it is politics and finanical news relating to national leaders which is targeted by censors, not porn or gaming. There’s an abundance of porn, but a scarcity on why millions and millions of people are afraid to breathe the air where they live. There’s no shortage of sites to help people spend money or waste time, but nothing about protecting their rights to privacy, free expression, religion or right to a fair trial in court. Want to post or read others’ comnents about corrupt officials? No!

Please learn the facts about censorship.

Trung Doan January 14, 2017 1:25 AM

Pity the paper is behind a paywall. I was hoping to see whether Vietnam’s authoritarian regime is included.

Nonna Mouse January 14, 2017 7:12 AM

Facebook AGAIN!

Back-doored: Whatsapp!

They say that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

From the Guardian:

“The security loophole was discovered by Tobias Boelter, a cryptography and security researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He told the Guardian:

“If WhatsApp is asked by a government agency to disclose its messaging records, it can effectively grant access due to the change in keys.”

I smell NSA besides the stink of FACEBOOK.

This follows a pattern of big American corporations buying out businesses with good encryption apps and then back-dooring them up the kazoo. To wit: Skype by MS, which was immediately back-doored, and now runs the MS servers thus making it wide open.

Now Whatsapp.

This isn’t right.

Jen Gold Stockholm January 15, 2017 12:58 AM

@ Myinfo

“the meet-up apps like Grindr and Tindr,”

and they can’t even spell. behemoths!

albert January 15, 2017 1:13 PM

@Jen Gold Stockholm,
tumblr, zoosk, etc. The Internet pretty much grew up with stupid names, spelling notwithstanding.
. .. . .. — ….

Joe Stalin January 15, 2017 10:54 PM

–Like corporate internet access filtering so pay to play large corporations get “fast” internet access and the rest of the web sites get next to none?
–Like corporate media propaganda channel filtering so we know when to do our Afghan, Iraq, Libya etc wars?
–Like Facebook,Twitter filtering where you get ghost banned for “fake” news that is not following the corporate propaganda line?

Take A Guess January 19, 2017 11:50 PM

While the widespread discouragement with FUD and whatnot of home (and mobile phone) server usage is not technically ‘filtering’ I believe it should be considered in the scope of the problem. Authoritarians can have a decisive influence on the internet by directing the architecture to one with snowden/prism-friendly chokepoints of failure/surveillance. I’m pretty sure it’s a clear enough situation to enough technical professionals. This is how the establishment has chosen to try to maintain dominion over less-than-fully-free-speech on the internet.

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