The fight for anti-censorship tools continues
This week (January 18) marks the ten-year anniversary of the successful campaign against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States. This proposed legislation threw up grave 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 originally intended to target websites having copyrighted and illegal content, this legislation potentially threatened websites containing political and dissident ideas. Joining this fight were a host of organizations in the private sector and civil society who fought for a free Internet.
An integral part of the fight was the campaign to ensure that anti-censorship tools were protected. In the world envisaged by the SOPA, 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 commentary or dissident ideas which might have been blocked online in some country contexts. That would have been the worst possible outcome for people including journalists, whistle-blowers, human rights defenders and other people who depended on them for secure access to censored material online and for whom these tools also allowed secure transmission of sensitive information. This would have been true for the United States, and the effect on the American market would have had knock-on effects on the range of products available in other countries.
Although the SOPA fight was won, this fight is far from over in other areas of the world. Just last week (week of January 9), the Nigerian government finally unblocked Twitter after blocking it for 7 months, beginning June 4 2021. Seven months prior, Twitter removed a Tweet by the Nigerian President in which he threatened the Igbo ethnic group who were agitating for an independent state away from Nigeria. Twitter deemed the Tweet in violation of its rules. The Nigerian government thought otherwise and in response ordered Nigerians to stop using Twitter and instructed ISPs to cut off access to Twitter from the Nigerian cyberspace, commencing the indefinite suspension of Twitter.
Nigerians largely ignored the order not to Tweet, recognizing it as a violation of their fundamental human rights to expression and opinion. Nevertheless, Twitter was now censored in the country and could only be accessed via VPNs by millions of Nigerians whose rush to download VPNs saw a huge spike in VPN adoption from the country by over 1400%. ExpressVPN, a popular VPN service reported a 200% increase in downloads from Nigeria on June 6, two days after the Twitter ban. The successful impact of VPNs as anti-censorship tools for accessing Twitter in Nigeria could be observed via Nigerian topics and conversations trending in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands where VPNs used as exit nodes.
The Nigerian government responded to those who continued to use Twitter through VPNs by threatening legal action but relented after public backlash. However, this is not the case everywhere. An avenue they could have explored was the blocking of VPN services in the country. Russia’s ongoing blocking of the Tor anonymity network and the blocking of VPNs by the Great Chinese FireWall is a case which demonstrates that anti-censorship tools are vulnerable targets for blocking. Australia is another country where VPN use has been threatened. When anti-censorship tools are blocked, it becomes much harder to access the open Internet.
On this anniversary of the campaign against SOPA, we must never lose sight of the broader, ongoing global fight against an open Internet. An important struggle in this fight is to ensure that anti-censorship tool use remains legal and access to them is unfettered. Particularly as we grapple with a world where there is Great Power competition — and thrown in this rivalry are competing versions of how free the Internet should be, what content should be allowed and whether these tools should be freely accessible. Drawing from the success of the SOPA campaign and the learnings from that struggle — including the indispensable role of a broad and determined coalition in the fight for an open Internet, we can ensure that we dig in and continue the resistance which secures and expands its gains, especially across borders.