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Imagine a life where you didn’t have access to your daily Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds and were either redirected to government-sponsored ones or outright denied. Many of my peers would find this outrageous but don’t know this is the norm in many countries. In my study, I intend on addressing the issue of censorship, with a specific focus on internet access, present in Asia and the Middle East. Both China and Saudi Arabia are the leading nations from their regions in the practice of internet censorship, being among the bottom 15 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Both regimes began shortly after the introduction of the world wide web to limit citizen access to websites that criticized the government or went against its beliefs. Whether it be by banning “torrenting” (illegally downloading media) or even limiting access to social sites we use every day, netizens’ freedom to fully access the internet in these countries is becoming more and more limited as we progress, and a solution must be implemented as soon as possible.
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Ever since the Tiananmen Square incident, criticism of the government in China seemed to be on the rise and with the introduction of the internet, the amount of criticism was about to increase even more. China knew it had to introduce internet access in order to stay connected to the modern world but still wanted to keep its distance as “its very existence also undermines the political stability of the country.” In order to find a balance between these two stances, it decided to create the Golden Shield Project which is its main government program for internet surveillance and censorship. This project, first created in 2000 by the Ministry of Public Security, worked to censor ideas that were either too vulgar or politically went against the Communist Party’s ideas and beliefs. It later grew into the modern “Great Firewall of China” that we know of today. The initial project only banned access to websites containing certain content or topics, while being more on the general side. However, as times went on, the program advanced and turned Chinese internet into a highly censored sphere, targeting specific individuals and promoting netizens and companies to be watchful of what they say at all times. The Great Firewall of China grew so much it was even able to force international companies who wanted to be present in the nation’s economy and internet sphere to follow censorship guidelines.
In modern times, internet censorship in China now follows three main ways to keep control over what is being shared and viewed; blocking and filtering, content removal and content manipulation. Blocking and filtering occur in multiple ways, access to entire websites such as “YouTube, Google, Facebook, Flickr, SoundCloud, and WordPress and a number of services operated by Google are blocked off to users.”  Along this method is the filtering of user requests and results according to keywords or combinations of numbers/letters included in the “packet” of data being searched automatically. Content removal is also rampant in social media pages amongst the internet, the most popular sites being used in China being Weibo (similar to Facebook) and WeChat, a chatting service. Weibo as a company employs government policies in censorship and removes not only posts that may contain “offensive” content but also removes offending accounts of people who may seem prone to go against internet guidelines. WeChat, on the other hand, goes as far as to censor even private messages between individuals. This censorship based on not only keywords but also images employs the use of complex software to scan for words based on a list of preset banned topics. Many of these banned keywords and topics are being compiled by the University of Hong Kong through the projects “Weiboscope” and “Wechatscope” and have reached amounts well into the thousands. As stated earlier, international companies also go to the extremes of following Chinese government censorship guidelines that they normally would not do in outside markets. The last method of internet censorship in China is the use of media control and manipulation of news being shared, strictly by designated broadcast outlets as the average citizen on social media is not allowed to publish news. News outlets are encouraged and pushed to promote “positive energy”, an alias for propaganda pushed by the Chinese government. Although, this large amount of censorship doesn’t always mean it will be followed by citizens, and dissidents are treated accordingly.
Despite many attempts by netizens in China to bypass censorship through similar sounding homophones such as “Grass Mud Horse” or cào nǐ mā (an expletive towards the Communist Party), hundreds of citizens are prosecuted yearly for what they say online. Multiple examples could be found of journalists who worked online being charged with crimes being generally along the line of promoting dissent or trouble, recent activists being 10 journalists from “64tiangwang.com, a website that reports on and documents protests in China” and “Lu Yuyu, who documented protests in China on Twitter and in a blog.” Despite these vast overreaches by the Chinese government when charging these activists, their power was made even stronger by the recent drafting and passing of the “National Intelligence Law”, left vague in order to allow it to be applied to greater instances of “dissent” as deemed by the government. This degree of censorship and arrests made according to policies are increasing exponentially, and are concerning along with others in the world.
Saudi Arabia took a different approach then China when first hit with the issue of allowing internet access into the city and rather than slowly implement a censorship software, it didn’t allow the internet to penetrate the country at all. The Saudi government instead first created an Internet Services Unit (ISU) in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in which all internet traffic would first flow through this point, backed by a censoring system looking for keywords and topics to be denied access too. In the beginning, rather than pick and choose what political events and criticisms to blacklist, the Saudi government employed international contractors to create a blacklist of websites to block content that was mostly against the rules of Islam, ie pornographic, gambling, drugs, and content on conversion to other religions/atheism. Saudi Arabia censors its internet not only with a firewall as stated earlier but with two additional methods. The first being very similar to methods employed in China is the idea of self-censorship through scare tactics by the government. The data of Saudi citizens were constantly logged by the ISU and were readily available to government officials whenever they please, ensuring that netizens are the first to censor themselves from illegal content. The second is the implementation of regulations on Internet Service Providers to ensure they are blocking sites that would have content deemed illegal, with the punishment of losing their license if not following rules. The Saudi government also asks international companies located in the internet realm of the country to comply with censorship through requests to remove content, usually on basis of “copyright”.
Currently, regulations on internet access were moved to a similar but differently named organization called the Communications and Information Technology Commission. Not much has changed, however, as the central firewall continues to block websites deemed inappropriate. The idea of self-censorship has increased as the use of social media emerged and gained popularity. Netizen’s who express any opinions critical or going against the government along with the religion of Islam are heavily persecuted in public cases. The Saudi government also follows in the footsteps of China to drown out dissidents and
maintains an active presence online as a means of creating the illusion of popular support for its policies. It is believed the government employs an “electronic army” to continuously post pro-government views, particularly on social media. Pro-government trolls have taken to “hashtag poisoning,” a method of spamming a popular hashtag in order to disrupt criticism or other unwanted conversations through a flood of unrelated or opposing tweets.
Nevertheless, activism in Saudi Arabia on the internet is somewhat prevalent as many anonymously attempt to fight back on the regimes encroachment on civil rights. One recent example being the Twitter controversy in which Saudi women used hashtags in order to bring light to an end the system of male guardianship.  This type of activism which sees positive outcomes as the government responds to please citizens, however, is in the minority. Most of the time numerous crimes have been pushed on internet users critical of the government or those who intend to promote human rights in the Saudi nation. Both liberal and conservative critics see punishments of up to ten years for the promotion of their opinion on social media sites, with some even being murdered as is the case with Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was killed for his criticisms of the Saudi government-run censorship of news. Most of the critics prosecuted by the Saudi government are sought after by through the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, an ambiguous law that could be applied to any instance. The crimes cited by the law ‘can be non-violent – consisting of “any act” intended to, among other things, “insult the reputation of the state,” “harm public order,” or “shake the security of society,”’, seriously threatening the security of any user of the internet in Saudi Arabia promoting their own views. Missing in Saudi Arabia is the protection of these internet rights for people along with netizens in China as well.
After the outlining of the issue at hand, one can see the gravity of such an issue and how it affects the daily life of millions of people in these countries. My solution intended for these issues would be the creation of an International Declaration of Internet Right’s, to be signed or agreed by most nations around the world. Similar to the Declaration of Human Right’s, this document would first establish the basic human right of internet access, which some countries are still lacking, and would build upon regulations involved with the internet. Imposing limits on how far countries are allowed to go with censorship would not only allow for greater freedom for citizens but would also be able to promote healthy dialogue between the government and its citizens. This regulation would also aid in outlining what clearly defines as terroristic activities on the internet, rather than the broad and vague laws created by countries used to persecute dissidents on the internet. Having an international body or organization to create this document would not only let ensure unbiased ideas leaning a certain direction but would also allow for countries to put in their own inputs on how they believe the document should be created. The implementation of such a document would take time to fully reach its potential as was the issue with the International Declaration of Human Rights. However, the potential to be had with such a document would truly be able to change the world’s perspective on internet use and how it is governed. In a global survey on opinions on the Internet, globally about 66% of people agreed either somewhat or strongly that those with uncensored internet access should be fighting to keep internet uncensored in areas where access is restricted. It is our duty as citizens of countries where internet access is fully allowed to promote change for these nations where they struggle with censorship and filtering.
Some may argue that getting these nations to agree to such standards would be difficult or almost impossible. Many would struggle with the idea of agreeing to digital rights when it could create political instability in countries. Most countries who employ some type of censorship generally do because of the need to limit knowledge to citizens. Letting go of such blocks and filters could lead to turmoil once full access is gained. However, those who counterargue forget the power of economic sanctions and public protest and the turmoil that can be caused by that as well. As well as the fact that netizens still will find ways to forgo censorship filters and gain access to blocked websites, it is just a matter of time. Many treaties that have countries in disagreements, unable to be solved using dialogue after a certain point, can be agreed to through public shaming in media. Coupled with the strength of support from citizens of the country through protest, these methods can be employed to ensure that every country around the world agrees to such digital rights, guaranteeing that every citizen across the world has full-fledged contact with the knowledge and internet they want at any point in time.
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