Media coverage of Internet censorship is usually framed through one of two lenses: The “1984” approach overstates censorship capabilities claiming that legions of internet police monitor everything in “real time” and are just one kick away if you make the wrong click. The “technoptimist” approach understates censorship capabilities and claims that circumvention technology is proliferating and the internet is a democracy-battering-ram chipping away at the crumbling walls of oppressive regimes.

Recent coverage of the protests in Myanmar/Burma have generally been falling into the latter camp. Noting that, according to ONI, Myanmar/Burma has one of the most restrictive Internet filtering systems in place this article wonders why information about the protests is getting out. It claims that “the cyber-reality in Myanmar is actually much less restricted than ONI’s research indicated” because circumvention technologies are available to citizens.

Filtering technologies seek to keep citizens inside Myanmar/Burma from have access to sites hosted outside — it does not say much about keeping information from moving in the opposite direction. Why? Because sites are filtered when they are contextually important, become well known, and/or can reach a large audience. For information to flow from a few to these sites if far harder to control than the information from these few sites to the many.

Similarly, while there are censorship circumvention technologies readily available these are used by the few not the many for a variety of reasons including fear of being caught, lack of technical ability, or just now knowing (or caring) about them.

Internet censorship regimes, such as Myanmar/Burma’s, are effective not because they can filter out all the content they want but because their filtering systems are backed up by other forms of repression that force users into a condition of self-censorship where they will not seek out banned content (the filter is just a reminder) let alone seek to violate their countries laws and put themselves at risk by using circumvention technologies.

So the reality is actually somewhere in between. While the majority are kept in line by the filtering matrix, there is a still resistance. Determined Internet users can use a variety of methods to bypass censorship while others speak out publicly and risk repression. All of this slowly widens the scope of accepted speech within these confined spaces — not cataclysmic event.

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