Is the Private Sector the Key to Reversing Internet Censorship?

Guest post by John Sinden of American University SIS International Relations Online

Turkey, heralded as a modern secular republic, has been increasingly plagued by political polarization, authoritarian policies, and massive protests. During times of protest, Turkish citizens are finding themselves without access to reliable information and are unable to freely and publically express their political views. Using the broad mandate of an anti-terror law, the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate has blocked more than 22,000 Web sites since this past December.

In the spring of 2014, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan restricted access to Twitter after users published claims of corruption against him and his regime. This silencing of public discourse to protect Erdoğan’s public image is deeply concerning. However, private-sector technology has proven to be helpful in the fight against Erdoğan’s restrictive policies. Coupled with an innovative and tech-savvy local population, private-sector technology is an effective tool to fight against press censorship and increase freedom of speech throughout the world.

Innovative solutions to censorship

Private-sector technological tools have demonstrated great resiliency and have become increasingly innovative in circumventing or breaking through the barriers of censorship. After Erdoğan restricted access to Twitter, Turkish citizens quickly established a creative work-around using the free Google Domain Name System (DNS) service.

Turkish authorities had used a DNS block to deny use of Twitter for anyone accessing the site through a Turkish IP address. However, Google’s DNS service allows you to access Web sites through another IP address, rather than having to use your own location-based IP address. By simply configuring network settings to ensure that the IP address was, Turkish citizens were able to access Twitter. The DNS work-around went viral and greatly expanded the technical skillset of Turkey’s population—a powerful instrument against Internet censorship.

Additionally, Turkish citizens began using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) such as Hotspot Shield and Tor to further circumvent Erdoğan’s restrictions on freedom of expression. A VPN client, which can be easily downloaded to a PC or Mac, allows users to access public Web sites from within a remote private network, benefiting from the security, anonymity, and encryption policies of these private networks. In short, a VPN allows users to send and receive encrypted, secure data over the Internet. In a recent interview, Alec Ross, former senior advisor for innovation to Hillary Clinton, discussed the tools available for citizens to circumvent Web censorship. This is what Ross had to say:

“The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak. I sit on the advisory board of a company called AnchorFree which has a product called HotSpot Shield. It’s actually the 37th largest Internet service in the world—it just surpassed Yelp and Tumblr. After the leader of Turkey shut down access to Twitter, there were millions of downloads to HotSpot Shield, and the ability of Erdoğan to keep people from accessing Twitter was reduced to near nothing. We are going to see more and more of this as authoritarians try to censor the Internet.”

Internet censorship is not isolated to Turkey alone—as access to the Internet in developing nations increases, so too does the implementation of restrictive policies. The trend of negative convergence between Internet access and Internet censorship is becoming the new norm across continents.

Countering censorship in the future

Despite the trend, Internet censorship can still be countered. As we have seen in Turkey, private-sector innovation is a powerful tool to fight back against government censorship. As authoritarian regimes become increasingly technical and complex with their suppression of freedom of speech, the private sector will continue to respond with tools and solutions that are more sophisticated. Access to groundbreaking private-sector technology has never before been as widespread and easily accessible as it is today. In countries where voicing an opinion can be met with great harm, citizens are now discovering ways to do so securely and anonymously. The availability of innovative technologies is the greatest instrument to reducing Internet censorship, toppling repressive regimes, and increasing freedom of speech throughout the world.

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