January 4, 2012 | By Jillian York

This Week in Censorship: Iran Further Retreats from the World, Belarus Reigns in E-Commerce, and Turkey Democratizes Site Filtering

Slowed Connections in Iran Spark Fears of Intranet Implementation

Late last week, the Iranian government descended deeper into authoritarianism, ordering the takedown of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's website. Rafsanjani, who heads an advisory body to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had previously refused to remove content critical of the government.

In addition, recent reports suggest Iran is one step closer to achieving its goal of creating a 'halal Internet'. Effectively, this would be an intranet that would limit Iranians' communications with the outside world while still allowing online communication--which a majority of Iranian citizens have become accustomed to--internally within Iran.  One of the new reports, from alternative Canadian site Oye! Times, cite the move toward an intranet as the cause behind the recent drop in Internet speeds in the country.

EFF sees the new developments in Iran--already a pervasive censor of online content--as grave threats to free expression in the country.

No Great Firewall of Belarus

Like Iran, Belarus exerts tight control over the Internet.  However, a recent report from the US Library of Congress1 that the country has made visiting foreign websites a misdemeanor, is nonetheless shocking...but fortunately for Belarusian citizens, it remains largely false.  Nonetheless, the actual regulations are cause for concern.

According to Belarusian site Pravo, the new regulations [full text in Russian] appear to amend a previous Presidential Decree dating back to February 2010 and would, among other things, allow tax authorities to levy an administrative fine on Belarusian business entities that violate its regulations. An article from the BBC clarifies that the regulations would require companies wishing to sell goods or services to Belarusian citizens to use the .by domain.  Another, from Deutsche Welle, quotes Belarusian IT lawyer Aleksey Ponomarev as saying that "Neither visiting foreign websites is considered a violation nor has any of the foreign websites been blocked."  The same article notes that "the sanctions are mostly aimed at Belarusian companies" and that the new regulations will mainly impact Belarusian online shops.

Despite the confusion around the reports, one thing is for certain: Belarus continues to censor websites and enact stringent regulations on the Internet.

The Bias of Turkey's Opt-in Filters

As EFF reported in November, Turkey--another country that exerts control over the national Internet--instituted an opt-in filtering system with two levels, "child" and "family."  According to Turkish news site Bianet, the "child" level of the filter was found, in December, to block sites that contain content on evolutionary biology.

Though a new report states that a number of previously blocked sites on the subject are now available, it also provides a glimpse into how the unblocking may have occurred: The information site for the filter allows anyone to query up to ten websites, to determine whether or not they're blocked under either level of the filter.  The person making the query is then able to vote on whether those ten sites should be included in either level of the filter, or not at all.  According to the report, two sites on evolution--darwinday.org and evrimianlamak.org--received enough votes to be removed from the filter.

Although Turkey's latest foray into filtering is optional, it still has some citizens up in arms and is being challenged by Internet freedom groups in the Council of State, Turkey's highest court. Furthermore, mandatory filtering of certain sites still remains outside of the new scheme.  EFF continues to have grave concerns about the extent of Turkey's control over the Internet and supports the efforts of local activists using the judicial system to fight online censorship.


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