ON OCTOBER 8TH two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, won the Nobel peace prize for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression”. The Kremlin congratulated Mr Muratov for being “brave”, which he is. Six of his colleagues at Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper he founded in 1993, have been murdered.
Ms Ressa is brave, too. Her news organisation, Rappler, started as a Facebook page in 2011. It is one of very few in the Philippines that criticises Rodrigo Duterte, a president who urges the police to kill suspects without trial. At least ten journalists have been murdered since Mr Duterte came to power. In 2016, when he was president-elect, he said: “just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
The Nobel award recognises a sad truth. Globally, freedom of expression is in retreat. The bluntest methods of silencing dissent are widely wielded: autocrats and criminal gangs often use the sword against the pen (or bullets against bloggers). Many governments also lock people up for peacefully expressing their views.
But these old-fashioned forms of repression are increasingly reinforced with or replaced by newer techniques. Freedom House, a think-tank, reports that in the past year efforts to control speech online escalated in 30 of the 70 countries it monitors, and receded only in 18 (see map). Many autocrats and would-be autocrats look with envy at China, where the Communist Party has overseen the construction of a walled-off information sphere, within which criticism of those in power can barely be seen or heard. None can copy it exactly, but many are deploying digital tools to curate the information that reaches their citizens.
Some autocrats still believe that suspending internet services completely is a good way to stymie critics, particularly in an emergency. In 2020 there were at least 155 regional or national internet shutdowns in 29 countries, according to Access Now, an NGO. More than a hundred of those took place in India. But shutdowns batter economies and make strongmen look crude. In 2011 a panicked Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictator, tried to quash a revolution by switching off the internet. Outrage—and boredom—spurred even more Egyptians onto the streets. Mr Mubarak was ousted.
China’s model is more sophisticated. Its national firewall blocks access to foreign social media and a host of other sources of information. Armies of human censors scan Chinese websites. Controls are constantly refined. In 2009 the government suspended internet access almost entirely in Xinjiang, a western region, following riots there. Now the internet is up again but police force Uyghurs, an oppressed minority, to install mobile apps that spy on all their online activity. They can be locked up for downloading a foreign product such as Skype, or software that lets them visit foreign sites such as Facebook.
Any government can order an internet service provider to blacklist sites it doesn’t like. Turkey blocks nearly 470,000 sites. It added 59,000 to the list last year. But creating a firewall even remotely like China’s is hard, even for governments willing to spend billions. One reason is that China’s internet infrastructure was built, from the outset, with these kinds of controls in mind. The party was blocking sites as early as 1996, when only about 150,000 Chinese were online.
Another reason China’s controls have proven so effective is that it has a domestic market big enough to support home-made alternatives to every major international website. There is plenty of content inside the firewall to keep Chinese web users entertained, so it chafes less. The sheer size of the Chinese market also reduces the economic costs of walling off the national web. Meanwhile, the Communist Party has extraordinary powers to boss domestic web firms around. Companies such as Tencent, a social-media giant, and Baidu, a search engine, have to hire, train and manage most of the censors who keep China’s internet spotless.
China also exports software and hardware that help other regimes build a more authoritarian internet. Iran is a happy customer. Officials there cite China’s “great firewall” as a model to emulate. Iran already blocks popular foreign services such as Twitter and Telegram. But its pious leaders think it has not gone far enough. The government has been working to create an alternative internet known as the National Information Network. The idea is that all its services would be hosted on domestic servers, with access linked to national identity cards.
Russia’s plans for purging the domestic internet of free thought are among the most ambitious. Vladimir Putin claims that the global internet is a tool of the CIA. In 2019 he signed an “internet sovereignty” law with the proclaimed goal of protecting Russia from online threats to its security. That law ordered all providers to install technology that allows the Kremlin to track, filter and reroute traffic.
Gregory Asmolov of King’s College London says that although Russia is ramping up its controls years after China began doing so, it is benefiting from being able to plug in much more modern kit. Roya Ensafi at the University of Michigan says the government is growing keen on tools that make websites slow to load, instead of completely unreachable. That renders them useless for distributing photos and video (the kinds of content the Kremlin finds most troublesome). It is more difficult for clever web users to get around than old-fashioned methods of blocking sites, and more difficult for organisations that monitor and publicise cases of online censorship to detect.
The Russian government is also trying to nudge its citizens to stop using big websites headquartered abroad. It is throwing money at Rutube, an alternative to YouTube owned by Gazprom, the state gas giant. Blocking YouTube is not yet feasible; ordinary Russians would be outraged if they could no longer watch cooking shows and celebrity tittle-tattle on it. But if enough content is herded onto Rutube, it might one day be possible to shut down YouTube without too much backlash.
Meanwhile, all new mobile phones sold in Russia must be set to use Yandex, a Russian search engine, by default. The government plans to require all public-sector workers, including teachers and university professors, to use only Russian email and messenger services while doing their jobs.
Other governments are also trying to persuade users to ditch foreign sites. The United Arab Emirates steers residents towards messaging apps with murky origins (at least one is connected to a government-backed firm). When members of India’s ruling party fell out with Twitter earlier this year they began encouraging their supporters to use Koo, a local alternative. In January spin doctors working for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said they would no longer communicate using WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook. They encouraged people to sign up for Bi P, a product of Turkcell, a big Turkish telecoms company.
Autocrats reckon that having more citizens on domestic services will make it easier to police what they say. They are also using new software to spy on citizens no matter which devices they own or which websites they visit. Freedom House says 45 countries in its sample were found to have used such “spyware” at some point in the past 12 months; it calls this a “crisis for human rights”.
In July investigators for more than a dozen newspapers said they had obtained 50,000 phone numbers of people who they believe were being considered for surveillance by clients of NSO Group, an Israeli firm that helps governments snoop on mobile devices. The governments included those of Mexico, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. The list of people who may have been surveilled included journalists, politicians and human-rights activists. A British judge ruled in May that Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, even used spyware to monitor his ex-wife. Snaffling personal data from people’s devices not only helps governments smear critics. It also discourages whistle-blowers and other people with important stories from speaking to journalists, for fear their identities will leak.
All this whizzy technology is increasingly combined with new laws to chill speech. Last year police in at least 55 of the 70 countries monitored by Freedom House investigated, arrested or convicted someone because of posts made on social media. That was the highest number of any year since the index was launched 11 years ago. They include a woman in Thailand who was sentenced to 43 years in jail for sharing clips from a podcast that criticised the monarchy (her initial sentence, of 87 years, was reduced because she pleaded guilty). Thailand is among several countries which have used “computer crime” laws to greatly expand the types of speech that can be considered criminal.
Lately web firms, not users, have been the target of most new rules. One increasingly common requirement is that they must store user data in the country in which it is generated, where governments can more easily get at it. China has required this since 2017. Other jurisdictions that have passed or are drafting similar legislation include Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Bangladesh.
India’s government is especially keen to tame digital firms. It is demanding that WhatsApp identify who first sends any message on its platform, which would require removing the end-to-end encryption that protects its users’ privacy. New rules which came into effect in February require big social-media firms to establish offices within India’s borders, and appoint local representatives. These people face up to seven years in prison if their employers do not comply with local rules. These include taking down within 36 hours content the government deems threatening to public order, decency, morality or national security. To say that such vaguely worded statutes are open to abuse is putting it mildly.
In Turkey Mr Erdogan was accusing journalists of spreading “fake news” long before Donald Trump made it fashionable. Now his ruling Justice and Development party is considering making the publication of “disinformation” on social media a crime punishable by up to five years behind bars. The government doubtless hopes it will help keep a lid on dissent. Kerem Altiparmak, a human-rights lawyer, notes that the government has already succeeded in taming Turkey’s press. He says if authorities can now subdue social media “the free flow of information will end.”
Last year Turkey gave individuals and companies the right to demand that tech firms delete some information about them. This supposedly emulates the “right to be forgotten” held by citizens of the European Union, but safeguards against abuse of the new system are weak. By the end of 2020 nearly 40,000 news reports had been blocked or removed from the web by court order. These include a story about an adviser to Mr Erdogan who forged his high-school diploma, messages posted to a forum about the president’s wife’s luxury handbag, and articles about a wrestling champion who was convicted of rape. The web censors have occasionally ended up chasing their own tails. Earlier this year, after one court blocked access to a story concerning a tender secured by a friend of Mr Erdogan’s son, a second court blocked access to news reports about the first court’s decision.
In a few cases new rules aim not to delete speech, but to ensure that governments’ own propaganda stays put. Leaders of all stripes took fright when, in January, big social-media sites suspended Donald Trump’s account for inciting insurrection. In September Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, signed an update to internet rules narrowing the circumstances under which firms can remove posts that they believe breach their in-house moderation policies. Mexico’s senate majority leader has proposed a law that would allow the country’s internet regulator to restore posts and accounts that social media firms have decided to take down. In June Nigeria began blocking Twitter after it deleted a message from the president, Muhammadu Buhari, alluding to Nigeria’s civil war, in which perhaps 1m people died, and warning modern secessionists that they would be treated “in the language they understand”.
Autocracies will doubtless continue to combine high- and low-tech ways of suppressing online speech. During tense times in Egypt police have sometimes stopped people on the streets and demanded they unlock their phones, to see if they have shared anything subversive. Soldiers in Myanmar have been carrying out similar duties since the army launched its coup in February. Freedom House finds that last year people in 41 countries were beaten up or killed because of things they had said online. In a speech in 2019 Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, warned online critics outside the country that they risked reprisals. His words carried especial menace, since Rwandan dissidents abroad have often met untimely ends. “Those making noise on the internet do so because they’re far from the fire,” he said. “If they dare get close to it they will face its heat.” ■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Walls of silence”