The fight for anti-censorship tools continues
from it continues department
This week (January 18) marks the tenth anniversary of the successful campaign against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States. This bill launched serious challenges to the future of an open Internet, including freedom of expression and access to information, by creating a blacklist of censored websites to be blocked and made inaccessible to the public.
Although initially intended to target websites with copyrighted and illegal content, this legislation potentially threatened websites containing political and dissenting ideas. Joined in this fight are a host of private sector and civil society organizations fighting for a free Internet.
The campaign to ensure the protection of anti-censorship tools was an integral part of the fight. In the world SOPA envisions, anti-censorship tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) could be banned. VPNs are legitimately used to ensure privacy and anonymity while accessing the internet. They are also used to access content such as critical comments or dissenting ideas that may have been blocked online in some national contexts.
This would have been the worst possible outcome for people, including journalists, whistleblowers, human rights defenders and others who depend on them for safe access to censored material online. and for whom these tools allow secure transmission of sensitive information. This would have been true for the United States, and the effect on the American market would have had repercussions on the range of products available in other countries.
Although the SOPA fight has been won, this fight is far from over in other parts of the world.
Just last week (week of January 9), the Nigerian government finally unblocked Twitter after blocking it for 7 months, starting June 4, 2021. Seven months earlier, Twitter deleted a Tweet from the Nigerian President in which he threatened the Igbo ethnic group who were campaigning for an independent state away from Nigeria. Twitter deemed the Tweet to be in violation of its rules. The Nigerian government thought otherwise and in response ordered Nigerians to stop using Twitter and ordered ISPs to cut off access to Twitter from Nigerian cyberspace, beginning Twitter’s indefinite suspension.
Nigerians have largely ignored the order not to tweet, recognizing it as a violation of their basic human rights to expression and opinion. Nonetheless, Twitter was now censored in the country and was only accessible via VPNs by millions of Nigerians whose rush to download VPNs led to a huge spike in VPN adoption in the country of over 1400%.
ExpressVPN, a popular VPN service, reported a 200% increase in downloads from Nigeria on June 6, two days after Twitter was banned. The successful impact of VPNs as anti-censorship tools to access Twitter in Nigeria could be seen through Nigerian topics and trending conversations in countries like Canada and the Netherlands where VPNs are used as nodes Release.
The Nigerian government responded to those who continued to use Twitter via VPNs by threatening legal action, but relented after public backlash.
However, this is not the case everywhere. One avenue they could have explored was the blocking of VPN services in the country. Russia’s continued blocking of the anonymity network Tor and the blocking of VPNs by China’s Great Firewall is a case that demonstrates that anti-censorship tools are vulnerable targets for blocking. Australia is another country where VPN usage has come under threat. When anti-censorship tools are blocked, it becomes much more difficult to access the open Internet.
On this anniversary of the campaign against SOPA, we must never lose sight of the broader and ongoing global fight against an open internet. An important struggle in this fight is to ensure that the use of anti-censorship tools remains legal and that access to them is unhindered. Especially since we are grappling with a world where there is great power competition – and within that rivalry are competing versions of internet freedom, what content should be allowed, and the issue of whether these tools should be freely accessible.
Building on the success of the SOPA campaign and the lessons of that struggle – including the indispensable role of a broad and determined coalition in the fight for an open internet, we can ensure that we stick to it and continue the resistance that secures and extends its gains, especially beyond borders.
Babatunde Okunoye is a researcher on the digital society, particularly in the context of the Global South. This post was originally published on his medium.
This special edition Techdirt Greenhouse is dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the fight that stopped SOPA. On January 26 at 1 p.m. PT, we’ll host a live chat with Rep. Zoe Lofgren and open panel discussions on the legacy of that fight. Please register to attend.
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Filed Under: censorship, nigeria, site blocking, sopa, vpns