Dictatorships and the internet

By James Cook on September 17th, 2013

Excitement grew in Iran yesterday as previously banned websites such as Facebook and Twitter were unblocked, allowing Iranian internet users the ability to log onto their social media accounts without using a proxy service.

A government firewall has existed in Iran for many years, and the sudden unblocking of the websites led many Iranians to believe that the country’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, was adopting a more moderate approach to censoring the internet.

Sadly, internet freedom had not arrived in Iran. State officials announced today that the unblocking of Twitter and Facebook was a temporary glitch, and they have since restored the blocks.

As dictatorships and hardline politicians enforce strict internet controls upon their populations, there will always be these temporary glitches. Every once in a while, someone is able to peek through the curtain out to internet, and the wider world.

Perhaps the most infamous country for censoring the internet is China. The “Great Firewall” of China restricts access to many western websites, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and WordPress.

Chinese Kindle

In 2010, sales of Kindle readers in China skyrocketed. While the devices were not officially available, Chinese auction sites regularly listed them, creating a “grey market”. The reason for such a rapid rise in sales was simple: the Kindle web browser allowed Chinese residents to entirely bypass the state’s internet censorship.

The South China Morning Post spoke to a Chinese blogger who owned one of the Kindle devices. “I still can’t believe it. I casually tried getting to Twitter, and what a surprise, I got there, and then I quickly tried Facebook, and it perfectly presented itself. Am I dreaming? No, I pinched myself and it hurt.”

While Chinese residents do have access to a large variety of websites, North Korea has it even worse. To access the internet in North Korea, residents need special permission. A small domestic network of websites exists, named “Kwangmyong”, but it has no link to the wider internet.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visits a computer lab at Kim Il Sung University on the first day of his trip to North Korea this year.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visits a computer lab at Kim Il Sung University on the first day of his trip to North Korea this year.

According to Reporters Without Borders, many government officials within North Korea have unlimited access to the internet through the use of a secret connection rented from China. This was confirmed by a North Korean defector who recently posted an AMA question and answer session on Reddit.

“Cadre members, high-ranking party officials, and wealthy North Koreans who have access to the internet know about the outside world. The majority of North Koreans do not.”

Despite having nearly twenty-five per cent of its population online, Cuba remains one of the strictest countries in the world when it comes to internet use. All material intended to be published on the internet must be approved by the National Registry of Serial Publications.

Instead of blocking foreign websites, Cuba instead chooses to simply leave its infrastructure in a poor state. The high set-up cost and slow connection speeds mean that Cubans find it nearly impossible to load foreign news websites.

An employee watches on as customers sit in a Cuban email centre.

An employee watches on as customers sit in a Cuban email centre.

As in China and North Korea, a bustling secret industry surrounds internet access in Cuba. Reporters Without Borders refers to Cuba’s internet access trade as “a genuine black market”. Passwords and access codes are rented out by government officials or hackers for a high price. In order to avoid detection, Cuban internet users have developed a multitude of ways to stay safe online, including limiting their internet usage to nights only.

It may come as no surprise to seasoned internet-watchers. But it’s astonishing just how many people in the world can’t open a Facebook account – and the curious workarounds that ingenious citizens often discover.