Lately Internet users in the U.S. have been worried about censorship, copyright legalities and data privacy. Between Twitter’s new censorship policy, the global protests over SOPA/PIPA and ACTA and the outrage over Apple’s iOS allowing apps like Path to access the address book without prior approval, these fears have certainly seemed warranted. But we should also remember that Internet users around the world face far more insidious limitations and intrusions on their Internet usage — practices, in fact, that would horrify the average American.
Sadly, most of the rest of the world has come to accept censorship as a necessary evil. Although I recently argued that Twitter’s censorship policy at least had the benefit of transparency, it’s still an unfortunate cost of doing global business for a company born and bred with the freedoms of the United States, and founded by tech pioneers whose opportunities and creativity stem directly from our Constitution. Yet by the standards of dictatorial regimes, Internet users in countries like China, Syria and Iran should consider themselves lucky if Twitter’s relatively modest censorship program actually keeps those countries’ governments from shutting down the service. As we are seeing around the world, chances are, unfortunately, it won’t.
Consider the freedoms — or lack thereof — Internet users have in Iran. Since this past week, some 30 million Iranian users have been without Internet service thanks to that country’s blocking of the SSL protocol, right at the time of its parliamentary elections. SSL is what turns “http” — the basic way we access the Web — into “https”, which Gmail, your bank, your credit card company and thousands of other services use to secure data. SSL provides data encryption so that only each end point — your browser and the Web server you’re logging into — can decrypt and access the data contained therein.
By blocking SSL, Iran has crippled Tor, a program that enables Internet users to anonymize not just their content but their physical location as well. Tor is a very common workaround for users in totalitarian regimes to access Twitter, Gmail, Facebook and other services. It’s hard to come up with an apt analogy for Iran’s unprecedented blockage — it’s not just that the letters you send are read by the Post Office and photocopied for their records, it’s that the Post Roads themselves have been closed off, so you can’t even send a letter in the first place. That’s the net effect of blocking SSL in Iran.
The hacking group Anonymous has brought down all kinds of websites in protest, mostly over copyright, in the U.S. and Europe. I don’t advocate their targeting any country’s servers for retribution, but where is the outrage or public demonstration or media attention over the denials of Iranians’ basic freedoms to communicate, via the Internet?