Tanzania Forces 'Unregistered Bloggers' To Disappear Themselves

from the the-internet-enemy dept

The internet is many things to many people. Some of these things are good, while others are bad. Still, it should be fairly uncontroversial to say that the internet has generally done a good job of empowering ordinary people. With the advent of a platform sans gatekeepers, millions of people suddenly had a voice that they would not otherwise have been afforded. The result of this has been the explosion in blogs, podcasts, forums, and other outlets. The internet brings the ability to reach others and that has resulted in an explosion of thought and speech.

It will come as no surprise that plenty of national governments throughout the world aren’t huge fans of their people suddenly having this sort of voice and reach. After all, that kind of free expression can often times come in the form of critiques of those very governments, and that kind of reach can create movements of dissent. You may recall back in April when Glyn Moody detailed Tanzania’s attempt to tamp down this critical speech by forcing bloggers to register with the government at a cost greater than the average per capita income of its citizens. While this was a fairly naked attempt to keep the voices of its citizens from being heard, Glyn pointed out that the Tanzanian government was at least attempting to be cynically subtle about it.

The current Tanzanian government is not very happy about this uncontrolled flow of information to the people. But instead of anything so crude as shutting down blogs directly, it has come up with a more subtle, but no less effective, approach.

What a difference a few months make in the actions of an authoritarian regime. It seems this more subtle approach did not have the desired effect, as the Tanzanian government has now ordered that all unregistered bloggers simply shut themselves down or face criminal prosecution.

Tanzania ordered all unregistered bloggers and online forums on Monday to suspend their websites immediately or face criminal prosecution, as critics accuse the government of tightening control of internet content. Several sites, including popular online discussion platform Jamiiforums, said on Monday they had temporarily shut down after the state-run Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) warned it would take legal action against all unlicensed websites.

Digital activists say the law is part of a crackdown on dissent and free speech by the government of President John Magufuli, who was elected in 2015. Government officials argue the new rules are aimed at tackling hate speech and other online crimes, including cyberbullying and pornography.

If this all sounds familiar to you, it should, because actions like these were very much the precursors to the Arab Spring. These types of attempts to control the internet, a platform that is well-designed to route around this type of control, rarely work for exactly that reason. People will generally find a way if they are motivated enough, which is what makes trying to disappear dissent a government’s first reaction so potentially disastrous.

Critics of this move are predicting the demise of Tanzanian blogging.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders group has said the new online content rules “will kill off Tanzania’s blogosphere”.

Perhaps that’s right. Or, perhaps, a move like this does more to spell the end of an authoritarian regime than the demise of a commonplace internet function that is ingrained into the human spirit.

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Comments on “Tanzania Forces 'Unregistered Bloggers' To Disappear Themselves”

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Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

If this all sounds familiar to you, it should, because actions like these were very much the precursors to the Arab Spring.

Or, perhaps, a move like this does more to spell the end of an authoritarian regime than the demise of a commonplace internet function that is ingrained into the human spirit.

Oh hey, more Arab Spring. Because the last one worked out sooooo well, bringing more freedom, democracy and prosperity to so many Arabs, yanno? Yup, all those Arabs sure are living with a whole lot less oppression and authoritarianism now…

Anonymous Coward says:

authoritarianism and the internet

Blogging is itself very authoritarian anywhere you go. There are not any platforms that will let people say anything they want, and even for people who set up their own site, their domain registrar or hosting provider (or both) can pull the plug at any time for any reason, causing a site to undergo a never-ending search for hosting providers and domain registers that don’t actively censor (but in fact they all do). We started seeing this a decade ago with .torrent sites like The Pirate Bay, and now White Nationalist sites like Stormfront and The Daily Stormer are getting jerked offline this way.

If Western pressure comes to bear on Tanzania for its censorship, maybe the government could retaliate by declaring the country a copyright-free zone and an international refuge from copyright tyranny. That would be nice to see, but there’s no telling how long it would be before the bombs start dropping from the sky, because we all know that would never be allowed.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: authoritarianism and the internet

It’s not that mischaracterized. Even on here, where defenders of free speech abound, we’ve got people running around defending the right of private parties to censor content because "the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them because they’re not government." They fail to understand that the First Amendment was written that way mostly as an accident of history, because at that time the government was the only entity with the power to perform widespread censorship of freedom of speech in the public square.

These days, that’s no longer the case. The Internet and its platforms have become the new de facto public square, and to say that its gatekeepers are not bound by the restrictions of the First Amendment is to say that we trust private entities with powers that We The People find so fundamentally abhorrent that we don’t trust ourselves (in the person of our democratically elected representatives) with these powers.

There’s something very wrong with that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: authoritarianism and the internet

… to say that its gatekeepers are not bound by the restrictions of the First Amendment is to say…

It didn’t require anyone to say that an old-fashioned telegraph company was a state actor bound by the restrictions of the First Amendment —or not— in order for a U.S. judge to still say:

No provision of law expressly defines the duty of telegraph companies to accept and transmit defamatory messages. Such duty as does exist is implicit in the general language of § 202(a) of the Communications Act. The extent of this duty will necessarily be marked out and made explicit in successive decisions of the federal courts interpreting and applying the language of the Act.

(O’Brien v Western Untion (2nd Cir. 1940); footnote omitted.)

In the digital world, though, these days, 47 USC § 230(c)(2) would stop a U.S. judge from speaking about any legal duty of a computerized telegraph company to transmit objectionable messages.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: authoritarianism and the internet

Hopefully this problematic system of internet mega-platforms and the censorship they practice will correct itself in the near future, but in the meantime it certainly doesn’t help when they’re being run by hardcore socio-political idealogues who are determined to spit in the face of half the country — even if only to not be seen as spitting in the face of the other half.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: authoritarianism and the internet

before the Internet, the private parties known as publishers, labels and studios were the main routes for someone to get their message to the public, and the exercised even more control than the private parties on the Internet. At least now, with exception like content-id, it is a publish first, with a possibly reactive later takedown, where it used to be try to be one of the fraction of a percent that were accepted by a publisher,label or studio.

Hint, the town square does not allow a single person to spread their message far and wide, unless they catch the attention of the media.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 authoritarianism and the internet

Before the Internet, there were other ways to get forbidden knowledge out to the public other than through the mainstream media, such as newsletters and shortwave radio stations. The main problem of course was that for the most part only the very few people who were actively seeking out alternative media would ever come across it on their own. For most people, it was through word-of-mouth.

John Smith says:

If only there were a completely decentralized internet platform that no one could censor…everyone would run to this platform, and censorship would become a thing of the past.

That’s the answer! An internet platform controlled by no one, a NETwork open to any USEr who signs on. Let’s call it…..USENET!

People don’t want free speech. Credentialism is alive and well, in music, where we demand airplay and record deals, or in literature, where a book deal is still automatic credibility, etc. Any “free speech” forum would quickly become a haven for spam, defamation, and the heckler’s veto, with ISPs refusing to intervene due to section 230 protection, which is how USENET perished as a relevant public square.

The public simply doesn’t care that some messages might be censored, nad they really aren’t. A powerful message can go viral much more quickly than Big Internet can move to silence it. If one platform shuts down, another opens up, and there is still the old-fashioned public square if one is being oppressed online. So many people compete for the internet space that traditional media is starting to become a more appealing venue. Just how many “cutting-edge, original series” can carve into the Netflix pie before the law of diminishing returns kicks in?

Internet companies often find censorship goeth before the fall, after their growth period where they didn’t censor contaent because they wanted to add eyeballs. This happened on AOL, who used to TOS people for doing anything business-related in their accounts, yet social media built itself on what AOL once called “SPAM.”

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