Internet Censorship

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ban on Twitter, which was enacted in an attempt stifle political unrest before the country’s March 30 elections,  was suspended today. With those elections now past, the site has been allowed to operate again in the country. The move suggests that the ability to freely communicate will be allowed in the country – at least until more evidence of political corruption is posted to the service ahead of a major election. An egregious assault on free speech has come to an end and social media has prevailed.

But it seems that blocking access to a social network isn’t the only way to manipulate the crowds. The Associated Press today reports that the United States Agency for International Development was behind a Twitter clone meant to stoke political unrest in Cuba. The service masqueraded as an independent social network where Cubans could discuss television shows and sports and other mundanities, but it was actually a tool meant to be used for revolution. As the US’ funding of its revolutionary groups shows, this isn’t the first time that USAID has backed tools meant to encourage democracy or other liberties abroad while serving its own goals.)

The contrast raises an interesting question: is it more effective for countries to control citizens by blocking access to social platforms, or by subtly manipulating them with their own tools?

Some countries prefer the former approach. Turkey is just the most recent example — other countries, like Iran and Syria, have blocked access to large portions of the Internet to control their citizens and North Korea has created its own private Internet and prevented its citizens from accessing outside sites. The idea is that blocking access to these services will stop the information that tends to circulate on them, such as the evidence of corruption in Turkey’s government, from attracting a larger audience. It’s often easier to block these services than it is to control them.

The United States appears to favor the latter approach. Instead of blocking access to social services to quell unrest on its own shores, it creates social platforms in other countries to promote its goals and subtly influence their politics instead of, say, invading the Bay of Pigs. Some countries handle their political problems with a muzzle — the US relies on megaphones.

Other countries, like China, blend both approaches. The country has long blocked access to many websites, and it censors the content shared on homegrown social networks like Weibo. But China also employs a veritable army of government contractors tasked with scouring the Web and posting pro-government propaganda in response to websites and blog posts that irritate the Chinese government without warranting censorship. It’s the equivalent to a tape-delay on live television shows: some statements are removed from the mix, while others are added in.

These approaches are emblematic of each country’s view of speech as a whole. Some in Turkey prefer silence, the United States favors those who can shout the loudest, and China muzzles its citizens even as its supporters continue to trumpet the government’s virtues.

In each case, it seems that efforts to control social media, like efforts to control speech in general, have failed. Turkey’s Twitter ban has been lifted. USAID’s Twitter clone is now defunct. And China’s Great Firewall is often bypassed by reporters, activists, and dissidents who defy Chinese censorship.

[Image via ausiegold, flick]