Facebook celebrated its 12th anniversary in Feb, 2016. The social networking giant now has over 1.59 billion users, but there are still political leaders around the world who don’t want their country to have access to the site, or those who have banned it in the past amid fears it could be used to organize political rallies.
Turkey is hardly the first country to crack down on social unrest by going after social networks. There are at least six other countries currently blocking Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter in some capacity (see map below), and many more have instituted temporary blocks over the last couple of years. Here’s everything you need to know:
Perhaps the most secretive country in the world little is known about internet access in Kim Jong-un’s nation. Although a new 3G network is available to foreign visitors, for the majority of the population the internet is off limits. But this doesn’t seem to bother many who, not knowing any different, enjoy the limited freedoms offered to them by the country’s intranet, Kwangmyong, which appears to be mostly used to post birthday messages.
A limited number of graduate students and professors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology do have access to the internet (from a specialist lab) but in fear of the outside world many chose not to use it. Don’t expect to see Kim Jong-un’s personal Facebook page any time soon.
In Iran, however, political leaders have taken to social media- despite both Facebook and Twitter officially being extraordinarily difficult to access in the country. Even President Hassan Rouhani has his own Twitter account, although apparently he doesn’t write his own tweets, but access to these accounts can only be gained via a proxy server.
Facebook was initially banned in the country after the 2009 election amid fears that opposition movements were being organised via the website.
But things may be beginning to looking up as Iran’s Culture Minister, Ali Jannati, recently remarked that social networks should be made accessible to ordinary Iranians.
The Great Firewall of China, a censorship and surveillance project run by the Chinese government, is a force to be reckoned with. And behind this wall sits the likes of Facebook.
The social media site was first blocked following the July 2009 Uighurs riots after it was perceived that Xinjiang activists were using Facebook to communicate, plot and plan. Since then, China’s ruling Communist Party has aggressively controlled the internet, regularly deleting posts and blocking access to websites it simply does not like the look of.
Technically, the ban on Facebook was lifted in September 2013. But only within a 17-square-mile free-trade zone in Shanghai and only to make foreign investors feel more at home. For the rest of China it is a waiting game to see if the ban lifts elsewhere.
Facebook isn’t officially banned in Cuba but it sure is difficult to access it.
Only politicians, some journalists and medical students can legally access the web from their homes. For everyone else the only way toconnect to the online world legally is via internet cafes. This may not seem much to ask but when rates for an hour of unlimited access to the web cost between $6 and $10 and the average salary is around $20 getting online becomes ridiculously expensive. High costs also don’t equal fast internet as web pages can take several minutes to load: definitely not value for money for the Caribbean country.
The posting of a cartoon to Facebook saw the networking site shut down across Bangladesh in 2010. Satirical images of the prophet Muhammad, along with some of the country’s leaders, saw one man arrested and charged with “spreading malice and insulting the country’s leaders”. The ban lasted for an entire week while the images were removed.
Since then the Awami-League led government has directed a surveillance campaign at Facebook, and other social networking sites, looking for blasphemous posts.
As Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 in an attempt to overthrow the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the government cut off access to a range of social media sites. As well as preventing protestors from using the likes of Facebook to foment unrest, many websites registered in Egypt could no longer be accessed by the outside world. Twitter, YouTube, Hotmail, Google, and a “proxy service” – which would have allowed Egyptians to get around the enforced restrictions- seemed to be blocked from inside the country.
The ban lasted for several days.
Syria, however, dealt with the Arab Spring in a different manner. Facebook had been blocked in the country since 2007 as part of a crackdown on political activism, as the government feared Israeli infiltration of Syrian social networking sites. In an unprecedented move in 2011 President Bashar al-Assad lifted the five year ban in an apparent attempt to prevent unrest on his own soil following the discontent in Egypt and Tunisia.
During the ban Syrians were still able to easily access Facebook and other social networking sites using proxy servers.
Producing fake online profiles of celebrities is something of a hobby to some people. However, when a Facebook page proclaiming to be that of Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam was discovered by the government in 2007 the entire Mauritius Facebook community was plunged into darkness. But the ban didn’t last for long as full access to the site was restored the following day.
These days it would seem Dr Ramgoolam has his own (real) Facebook account.
Another case of posting cartoons online, another case of a government banning Facebook. This time Pakistan blocked access to the website in 2010 after a Facebook page, created to promote a global online competition to submit drawings of the prophet Muhammad, was brought to their attention. Any depiction of the prophet is proscribed under certain interpretations of Islam.
The ban was lifted two weeks later but Pakistan vowed to continue blocking individual pages that seemed to contain blasphemous content.
During a week in November 2009, Vietnamese Facebook users reported an inability to access the website following weeks of intermittent access. Reports suggested technicians had been ordered by the government to block the social networking site, with a supposedly official decree leaked on the internet (although is authenticity was never confirmed). The government denied deliberately blocking Facebook although access to the site today is still hit-and-miss in the country.
Alongside this, what can be said on social networking sites like Facebook has also become limited. Decree 72, which came into place in September 2013, prohibits users from posting links to news stories or other news related websites on the social media site.
According to Reporters Without Borders, in 2011, two of the country’s major internet service providers blocked YouTube. Freedom House, a US watchdog that conducts research on political freedom, said the site was blocked in its 2013 report and notes, “The government requires all internet service providers to use state-controlled internet infrastructure.” Eritrea is routinely listed as one of the most censored countries in the world. Google does not include Eritrea on its list of countries in its transparency report that currently block YouTube, but notes that the list “is not comprehensive” and may not include partial blocks.
(Update, 3/31: Since this article came out, some users familiar with Eritrea have said that the site is not blocked, but instead, often inaccessible due to lack of bandwidth. A spokesperson for Freedom House, which found that the site was blocked when investigators put together the 2013 report, said that, “Since Eritrea has one of the worst infrastructures in Africa, it is possible that some ISPs deliberately block services that require a lot of bandwidth, to allow other traffic to be more stable.” He also noted that the government’s poor human rights record indicates that the inaccessibility of YouTube could be related to censorship.)
This data was compiled with help from Google’s transparency report, Twitter, and the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard, and the SecDev Group in Ottawa. It doesn’t take into account countries where only certain pages or videos may be censored. The United Arab Emirates, for example,jailed an American citizen last year for posting a comedic video to YouTube—but it doesn’t block the entire network, so it’s not on the map. Additionally, Google and Twitter don’t list their services as being blocked in Cuba, but social networks there are difficult to access, in part due to cost barriers.
Outside of these current blocks, many governments have banned social-media networks in the past, during periods of unrest. Here’s a brief history of notable incidents:
Since 2009, Google has counted 16 disruptions to YouTube in 11 regions, often in the wake of protests. In March 2009, Bangladesh blocked YouTube for four days after someone posted a video of a meeting between army officers and the Prime Minister that revealed unrest in the military. Bangladesh blocked the network again for an extended period between 2012 and 2013 over an anti-Islam video. Libya blocked YouTube (and other social networks) for 574 days between 2010 and 2011, after the site hosted videos depicting families of prisoners killed in Abu Salim prison demonstrating in Benghazi, according to Human Rights Watch. Syria blocked YouTube (as well as Facebook) for about three years, lifting the ban in February 2011. Tajikistan has blocked YouTube more than once, most recently in 2013, over a video of the president dancing. Afghanistan blocked YouTube for 113 days between September 2012 and January 2013, after fears that an anti-Islam film on the site would spark further riots. Here’s how Google depicts the Afghanistan ban:
Twitter, which was used as a tool to organize protests during the Arab Spring, was shut down partially or completely by several governments in the region in 2011, including Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Cameroon, and Malawi, according to the OpenNet Initiative. Belarus has also blocked major social networks, including Twitter, in 2011 to quell anti-government protests. That same year, when a series of riots swept the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to ban people from using social-networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook, although he didn’t go through with it. Targeting specific users or pages is more common than complete bans on Twitter—South Korea, for example, blocked access to North Korea’s official Twitter account in 2010 on the basis that it contained “illegal information.” When it’s clear that a certain Tweet or user is only being blocked in a select country, Twitter flags it as “Country Withheld Content.”
Facebook was also temporarily blocked by several countries during the Arab Spring. In 2010, Pakistan temporarily blocked Facebook after it hosted a competition called, “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day,” which collected about 200 entries. Myanmar has sporadically blocked Facebook; China claims the ban was lifted there in 2013. There have also been instances where governments have blocked fake individual pages pretending to belong to world leaders. In 2008, Morocco went so far as to arrest a man for creating a profile posing as Prince Moulay Rachid. So far, Turkey has not yet chosen to censor Facebook, but that might simply be because it’s not on the prime minister’s radar. “What is this thing called Twitter, anyway?” Erdogan said Tuesday on NTV, a privately owned Turkish news channel. “It is a company, involved in communication, social media, etc.”