Since its launch, Instagram has become increasingly popular, nearing a billion monthly active users. Much loved for its users sharing their photos and videos on their devices, Instagram and its popularity will likely only grow in the coming years.
However, while Instagram is easily accessible in the United Kingdom, this is not true among those outside the democratic West. Authoritarian regimes around the world censor access to various social media platforms and Instagram is one of primary examples. In this article, we will look at three forms of censorship used by different authoritarian regimes globally.
Why is Instagram Censored?
Internet censorship restricts information accessible by the public in the internet. According to security researcher Stefan Tanase, this has been spreading across the world, constructing digital borders and fragmenting the online world, causing harm to human rights, education, and even the academy. The same is true with regards to Instagram which serves as a convenient flow of information; restricting access to the platform allows authoritarian governments to restrict the flow of information, strengthening their control over their population.
We can look at three examples of this happening: Russia, Iran and China. China and Iran shares a model of censorship, a denial of access. Without going into too much technical detail, this is done through tracking of users within the country and blocking their access to the chosen target of censorship, in this case, Instagram.
In China, Instagram blocking was an added measure in 2014 to existing censorship targets through the infamous Great Firewall. The addition of Instagram to the list of censored social media platforms is a result of Hong Kong democracy activists using the platform to share live videos and photos with their Mainland brethren. To ensure Hong Kong’s democratic spirit not reach the 1.3 billion-strong Mainland Chinese population, Instagram censorship was incorporated though the platform remains accessible in China and Taiwan.
As aforementioned, Iran’s situation is quite similar in the sense that they have a history of censorship, but one with religious in addition to political overtones. As a theocratic regime, Iran was greatly worried by the potential of social media platforms to spread information across their populace, with Telegram and Instagram being examples of ire. This is because fellow Middle Eastern Islamic countries overthrew their governments with the help of social media during the Arab Spring. An example of this is Egypt which used a network disconnect tactic to stop the entire country of Egypt from accessing the internet for a limited period of time during the 2011 protests.
Russia’s example is unique but even more frightening when compared to Iran and China. While the latter two regimes’ rely upon using their propaganda departments to restrict the flow of information within their own countries, Russia uses their influence to pressure Instagram into censoring content Moscow does not like. The most prominent example is the banning of videos by opposition leader Alexei Navalny earlier this year. This form of censorship relies upon exerting pressure on companies through threatening their business interests. One of the most famous examples of this happened in July 2017 when Apple decided to aid Chinese internet censorship by removing access to VPN apps.
How to Circumvent Censorship?
The model of censorship used by Iran and China is far easier to deal with and thus, we will first look at their solution first: a Virtual Private Network or “VPN” for short. A VPN forms a secure tunnel around the traffic that is sent, allowing both your IP and identity to be hidden. Unlike a proxy server which can also disguise your IP, a VPN can also disguise activity ensuring government monitoring would not detect its use. This is especially important in China’s case; Beijing only allows corporate VPNs with government affiliations, which unfortunately is not helpful if you were interested in posting on platforms like Instagram for political reasons. Consumer VPN products are thus necessary if you would like to circumvent censorship AND not get caught.
So how do you choose a good VPN? Besides functional tests like speed, the most important factor for people looking to get around censorship should be logging policies. This is because certain VPN providers are known to sell out their users to the government. Examples include IPVanish and PureVPN who broke their no log policies, providing materials to authorities leading to the arrest of their users. On the other hand, there are examples of VPN providers living up to their no log policies, such as ExpressVPN during the Andrey Karlov investigation in Turkey and Perfect Privacy which had servers seized by the Dutch police. Both companies had their servers seized by the government, but neither lost user data.
Getting around Russia’s form of censorship is far more difficult, with perhaps the only effective method on term is to make companies realize that CITIZENS of a country and not its regime can affect business values. Youtube is seen to support their users and not governments when Russia tried the same tactic used against Instagram of threatening its business if certain content was not censored. However, while they chose to keep their platform uninfluenced by Moscow, Youtube has been accused of censoring political thought in the United States to no avail.