How new tech is helping people circumvent digital authoritarianism

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I want to talk about the battle that’s raging every day between people who want to censor online content and those who want to protect access to a free and open internet. 

It also relates to a recent scoop about a new Google product that’s designed to make it easier for developers to build censorship-resistant apps. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a space worth paying attention to.

Questions about who gets to control the internet and who gets access to online information are central to the future of our world. They have ramifications for geopolitics, free speech, national security, political organizing, human rights, equity, and power distribution in general. And I promise, it’s not as niche, or as simplistic, as you may think.

We’re in the midst of a quiet technological arms race between the censors and those trying to evade them. Lots of people are already aware of China’s Great Firewall and the digital ice age in North Korea, but over the past two years, we’ve seen interesting developments in censorship in Russia, especially related to the war on Ukraine, and in Iran, during the latest wave of pro-democracy protests last fall.

To make matters worse, authoritarian regimes are increasingly learning from each other. They can share and copy each others’ censorship tactics more quickly than ever before. As a result, internet censorship is now being wielded as a political weapon in countries all over the world, even including democracies. And as people grow more dependent on digital tools and platforms, the harm done by online censorship becomes more serious.

Developers of technologies that can help to circumvent censorship, like VPNs, traffic disguisers, and anonymity and encryption tools, are constantly trying to keep up with changes in tactics. During times of internet crackdowns, censors and circumventors get into a “cat-and-mouse” game, where censors move to block access in a particular way, and circumventors work on finding technical solutions to by-pass the blocking. The game continues and often escalates.

But Roya Ensafi, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, says the majority of censorship fighters “lack the necessary technical means to develop and deploy circumvention capabilities” that can withstand the evolving tactics and sophisticated surveillance of governments like Russia, China, and Iran. 

The circumvention tools that do exist can be expensive to run, and they often require a level of technical expertise that most internet users lack. The new product created by Google’s Jigsaw, a team within the larger company that does more socially oriented work, is intended to make this all easier. Jigsaw created an SDK version of its Outline VPN product, which will allow developers to build censorship resistance directly into their apps.

More progress is being made every day to make the web more censorship resistant, largely thanks to networks of activists and volunteers who are committed to internet freedom, often in secret and at great personal risk.

But there is much more work to be done, Ensafi says: the fight against censorship “requires multidisciplinary collaborations between journalists, NGOs, researchers, engineers, and, most importantly, users in censored regions.”

What else I am reading

  • It seems that Elon Musk is finally in position to fight for the “free speech” platform that he has long wanted Twitter, now X, to be. Musk is suing California over a new law intended to increase transparency into social media’s content moderation processes, on the grounds that the law violates First Amendment speech protections. It’s surely no coincidence that this law would burden X with more content moderation costs. 
  • I was captivated by this inside-access story from Kashmir Hill about how leading tech companies decided not to release facial recognition technology when they first developed it. It is a fascinating and dramatic tale that shows just how much power over society these companies have. 
  • This week, Google headed into its biggest antitrust case in recent years. It’s fighting against a case brought by the US Justice Department, which claims that Google illegally orchestrated its business dealings to make sure its search engine was the default on phones and web browsers. NPR wrote a great explainer that lays out what you need to know.

What I learned this week

A report from Tech Policy Press, published on September 12, adds to the growing pile of evidence that online harassment can cause real-world violence. It’s written by Itxaso Domínguez de Olazábal, an officer at 7amleh—the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Palestinian digital rights, which put out a report on the topic back in June

Researchers at 7amleh looked at tweets relating to one Palestinian village, Huwara, that has been a center for conflict between Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers. Using a sentiment analysis algorithm, they analyzed over 15,000 Hebrew-language tweets with the hashtags “Huwara (#חווארה)” and “Wipe out Huwara (#חווארה_את_למחוק)” from the beginning of the year until the end of March. They found that more than 80% of them included content that incited violence, racism, and hatred against the people of Huwara. 

It’s yet another example of inciting speech online as an intractable dimension of real-world violence , and a rather rare look at the role that social media, and Hebrew-language posts in particular, play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

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