Iraq has asked several Internet service providers to block access to social media, news outlets, and other websites in an effort to prevent extremists from building support through the Web, the Wall Street Journal reports. The government requested the blockade on June 15 — Google, Twitter, and Facebook have all reported disruptions to their services in the country since then.
Blocking access to the Internet has become increasingly popular over the last few years. Turkey started things off earlier this year when its prime minister tried to block access to Twitter and YouTube ahead of the country’s elections in March. Thailand then followed suit by temporarily blocking Facebook at its military’s request when protests erupted around the country in May. It seems like whenever there is a conflict — either in the “armed forces” or the “politician vs. citizens” sense of the word — one of the first courses of action is to sever access to the Internet.
There are other examples: social networking sites were banned from Belarus in July 2011 to stifle protests during a national holiday; a confrontation between oil workers and police that left 15 dead prompted Kazakhstan to block access to Twitter in December 2011; and Syria’s government is suspected of cutting off the entire country’s Internet access in November 2012 in one of the most effective Internet blockades that the world had seen up to that point. As soon as freedom of information becomes a problem, it seems, the Internet is just yanked away.
The ease with which these countries are able to prevent their citizens from accessing what is supposed to be a global resource facilitating the free exchange of information shows that there is a problem with the way the Internet is currently structured. Cables can be cut, ISPs can be shut down, and citizens can be separated from the rest of the world based on nothing more than the government’s whims. It’s almost enough to make the Internet-providing drones that Facebook and Google have been working on seem like a fair alternative to the current system.
One of the greatest fears prompted by the revelation of National Security Agency programs meant to surveil billions of people around the world is the so-called balkanization of the Web, where every country will establish its own intranet instead of allowing its citizens to access the Internet. (Whether this is frightening because of its economic impact on tech companies or because of the control it grants these governments over what their citizens can see depends on your perspective… and how much of your retirement fund is invested in Facebook and Google.)
These blockades should reinforce that fear. They don’t only show that a number of countries are willing to provide access to the Internet until the moment doing so runs counter to their own agendas; they also show just how easy it would be to secede from the World Wide Web. These aren’t theoretical arguments about what would happen if a country decided that it was sick of the United States’ spy programs — these are current examples of what a country can do whenever its government decides that Internet access is less important than its own goals.
So no, it isn’t a surprise that Iraq has decided to block access to the Internet while it fights to keep ISIS from Baghdad. (And yes, you should read the War Nerd’s excellent posts about ISIS and its advances if you aren’t familiar with the group or its intentions.) But that doesn’t make it any less chilling, especially if you’re concerned about the health of the Internet as a whole.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]