Benjamin Franklin once said, “[Those] that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” an aphorism that’s more relevant now than ever before, as the complicated problem of online censorship seemingly worsens each week.
Most recently, Pakistan and France have blocked online platforms that they suspect are used as terrorist platforms. The Pakistan Telecommunications authority has reportedly asked Internet service providers (ISPs) to block WordPress due to its usage by international terrorist organization Tehreek Taliban Pakistan. France has used its new anti-terrorism powers, which were approved by its parliament last year, to block five websites suspected of condoning terrorism and spreading hate speech without court orders.
“I do not want to see sites that could lead people to take up arms on the Internet,” said Bernard Cazeneuve, French Interior Minister. “I make a distinction between freedom of expression and the spread of messages that serve to glorify terrorism. These hate messages are a crime.”
Though Pakistan’s move might seem heavy-handed, the country lacks the software to ban specific domains, which is why they prefer to ban the whole platform. Local news sources have also said that the ban is only temporary, and could be lifted in a few days.
However, this isn’t the first time Pakistan has censored its webizens. The country still has temporary bans on such sites as Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, IMdB and Flickr. It even went so far as to permanently ban YouTube back in 2012.
In France, ISPs had 24 hours to comply with the government’s demands, blocking such sites as al-Hayat Media Center, which is accused of possible links with Islamic State militants. Without going through a court, the French government demanded ISPs take “all necessary measures to block the listing of these addresses.” Now, visitors are redirected to a page from the French Interior Ministry, which contains a warning graphic of a big red palm and reads “the contents…incites terrorism or justifies terror acts.”
“There are a few different ways to implement a country-wide block of a specific website,” says Jason Eisert, President of Sectorlink. “The first is DNS poisoning: End-users generally rely on their ISP’s servers in order to provide DNS resolution. The State may issue an order to all it’s ISPs to “poison” the DNS entry for a specific domain so that it resolves to a custom IP address. The result is that when the end-user browses to global instead of it resolving to an IP address delegated by WordPress, it instead resolves to an IP address delegated by the State. The second is ISP level IP/ASN blocking: The State may instead order all it’s ISPs to block traffic coming in and out of the IP address range. The problem in this case is collateral damage, the IP range in question may be used by thousands of other unrelated websites, which would also be blocked by this policy. The third of which is Backbone level IP/ASN blocking: This blocks the WordPress IP range at the backbone “chokepoints” where Internet traffic enters/leaves the country. This shares the same drawbacks as the ISP level blocking, but can also (depending on implementation) interfere with traffic for neighboring countries that happen to pass traffic through the blocking country en route to the destination network.”
Although Pakistan and France are acting in the interest of national security, many believe that Internet censorship is not the way to combat these modernized threats. According to the Global Internet User Survey, which polled 10,000 different Internet users in 20 different countries, only 33% of people agree that each individual country has the right to govern the Internet the way it sees fit. However, 50% agree that there should be some form of governance so as to protect the online community from harm.
The survey also revealed that 50% of people polled believe that access to the Internet should be considered a basic human right.
With so many users feeling that Internet access is an inalienable right, censoring sites seems wrong. However, terrorist groups do use the web to disseminate information and gather new recruits. So while the pragmatic thing to do might actually be to block access to these sites, that doesn’t necessarily mean its the right thing to do, which begs the question, what is?