Singer Barbra Streisand and the governments of Turkey and Pakistan have little in common. But there is one thing: All have tried to censor the Internet, and all have failed miserably.
In a new paper, Zubair Nabi, with IBM Research’s big data and analytics research group in Ireland, details how the so-called “Streisand effect” plays out over and over again when authoritarian governments try to censor information online, either by blocking or partially blocking “offensive” websites, throttling access speeds, or out-and-out manipulating content. Increased knowledge about the futility of censorship could help activists and researchers fight back against it and force regimes to rethink their censorship actions–or at least that’s the hope.
The Streisand effect took its name when the Funny Girl star unsuccessfully sued to have an aerial photo of her Malibu beach house removed from the website of a photographer who had posted it along with thousands of other images of the California coastline. (He was actually aiming to document coastal erosion.) Prior to her lawsuit, only a few people had seen the image of Streisand’s house. After the ensuing lawsuit-related publicity, hundreds of thousands of people saw it.
A similar phenomenon played out in Turkey–one of the most connected nations in the world–earlier this year, when the government blocked access to SoundCloud to stop access to leaked recordings implicating the Turkish prime minister and other officials in corruption. Two months later, in March, the government also blocked access to Twitter and YouTube, also related to leaked recordings.
All of these efforts seemed to have failed, Nabi shows. Alexa’s rankings of website popularity show that YouTube stayed in the top 10 most-visited websites in Turkey during the censorship period. Google Trends showed that searches for the Twitter handle “Haramzadeler,” which initially began uploading leaked recordings earlier in 2013 to no fanfare, spiked significantly when the government blocked SoundCloud in January 2014 and stayed high through late March. At the same time as the censorship events, searches for anti-censorship tools like “Tor,” “Spotflux,” “Ultrasurf,” and terms like “unblock” and “proxy” also spiked, showing that people were actively working to get around the censors.
Last, Nabi analyzed YouTube statistics to see whether people searching for blocked content were actually able to access it. This was difficult in many cases because many videos were later taken down and because YouTube only shows graphs, not the actual data. However, Nabi was able to pinpoint YouTube stats for one video, which reveals the Turkish prime minister discussing construction permits with a business tycoon friend and was among the videos causing Youtube to be blocked in March. “It is clear from the graph that even though the video was uploaded in February 2014, its popularity spiked in March, after YouTube was censored,” he writes.
More than 60 countries around the world today censor the Internet in some form, according to the paper. However, Nabi cautions that this Streisand effect does not manifest itself in all instances of censorship. Its existence in some cases only underscores the need for political activists and citizens to continue to develop and disseminate tools, such as VPNs and proxies, that circumvent censorship, he says.
The study also shows the Streisand effect at work in recent censorship episodes in Pakistan. However, it’s also difficult to prove in many cases where data the data that companies like Google and Alexa provide is not granular enough or put into context. Nabi calls on more companies to open up more data to help the cause of anti-censorship activists.
“While the Streisand Effect is a handy instrument to keep censorship in check, it is only one of the many means to an end, not an end in itself. The end being an open, universally accessible Internet,” he writes.