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Wikipedia Encryption ‘Has Decreased Censorship’ Thanks To HTTPS

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Wikipedia’s move to encrypt the entire site has led countries to take a more hands-off approach with regard to censorship, a Harvard study finds

Wikipedia’s move to encrypt its entire website in June 2015 appears to have had the intended effect of reducing government censorship of the project worldwide, a new study has found.

Harvard’s Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society found that, overall, there was less censorship of Wikipedia in June 2016 than there had been previous to the move to HTTPS.

Censorship analysis

The study, Analysing Accessibility of Wikipedia Projects Around the World, examined server-side data provided by the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as client-side data giving a view into what was accessible by users in 15 countries.

The server-side analysis tracked requests for 1.7 milion articles in hundreds of languages from November 2011 to late April 2016, as well as the general number of requests for Wikipedia in each of its languages from May 2015 to June 2016, while the client-sdie analysis took place mainly in June 2016 and covered all of Wikimedia’s 292 language projects.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales

Researchers then identified events that seemed likely to have been caused by censorship, distinguishing them from a “large number of suspicious events that remain unexplained”.

Those events included what appeared to be “intermittent” censorship by the governments of Thailand and Uzbekistan and a “suspicious decrease” in traffic to certain articles from Vietnam, as well as other decreases from various countries related to in-country events ranging from natural disaster to political upheaval, and which affected access not only to Wikipedia but to the Internet more broadly.

Decrease in blocking

But overall the study found there was relatively little censorship of the project worldwide, something it attributed in part to the use of encryption, which means governments can’t bar particular pages, and must either block or allow the site as a whole.

“Considering the widespread use of filtering technologies and the vast coverage of Wikipedia, our study finds that, as of June 2016, there was relatively little censorship of Wikipedia globally,” the study found.

China began blocking Chinese Wikipedia in May 2015 in expectation of the switch to HTTPS, but in other cases the move seems to have prompted governments to allow access rather than block the site.

WikipediaFor instance, in 2013 Iran was found to be blocking more than 1,000 individual Wikipedia articles, but appears to have left access to the HTTPS version open.

And in August 2015 Russia blacklisted Wikipedia over a single article, but reversed the ban less than 24 hours later, the study found.

‘Positive step’

“While some users lamented the switch… the move was generally perceived by the freedom of expression community as a positive step, the effects of which may already be evident,” the researchers wrote.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has taken a strong pro-encryption stance, criticising governments – including that of the UK – who want to water down the technology on security grounds.

In October 2015, shortly after the move to encryption on Wikipedia, Wales said SSL encryption was essential for protecting the Internet.

“There is a massive trend towards SSL,” he said. “People are of a higher understanding that we need a safe and secure public Internet… this is fundamental.”

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