Wikipedia, the world’s most popular online encyclopaedia, has long been targeted by online censors for its refusal to comply with their demands.
In previous years, depending on where you lived, Wikipedia articles on subjects as diverse as women’s rights, pornography, the Tiananmen Square massacre, religion, and sex would be routinely blocked. That was until 2015 when Wikipedia implemented a technical changed which left censors on the backfoot.
Encryption cracks the censors
Because it was in 2015 that the Wikipedia Foundation, the body which oversees the site, switched their site to being completely HTTPS.
The difference between the HTTP and HTTPS protocol is not familiar to everyone, but essentially it boils down to the fact that HTTPS sites are encrypted while HTTP ones are not. The difference HTTPS can make for online privacy is significant.
If somebody is trying to snoop on your online activity and you are using Twitter with HTTPS, they can see that you are on Twitter, but they cannot see which accounts you are looking at on the site. Equally, with Wikipedia, it means they can see you are using the site, but cannot see which pages you are looking at.
Prior to 2015, Wikipedia used both the HTTP and HTTPS, which meant censors in countries like China, Russia, and Iran, were able to block any specific pages of the site that they chose. But once HTTPS had been introduced across the board, that became impossible.
So, from 2015 onwards, online censors had a simple choice, they could either censor all of Wikipedia or none of it.
HTTPS reducing online censorship
Last month, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard published a study on the impact of this switch on the amount of censorship the site faced around the world. And in most countries, it found the results to be hugely positive.
They looked at 15 different countries, all of which had a proven track record of censoring Wikipedia, and considered both client and server-side data in their analysis.
The study has concluded that “on balance, there is less censorship happening now than before the transition to HTTPS-only content delivery in June 2015. This initial data suggests the decision to shift to HTTPS has been a good one in terms of ensuring accessibility to knowledge.”
Of the 15 countries they looked at, the study found that only China, Thailand, and Uzbekistan continued to block access to Wikipedia.
China operates the most pervasive online censorship programme in the world and Wikipedia is one of the countless foreign sites which is blocked at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party for refusing to comply with their censorship demands.
Indeed, as has been the case with Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, a Chinese rival to Wikipedia, (which will be a digitised version of their own Chinese Encyclopaedia) will be launched next year.
But in other countries, the opposite effect has been seen. In Iran, for example, the switch to HTTPS suddenly opened access to a whole range of articles which were previously blocked in the country, including content on such fundamental things as women’s rights.
Russia now also currently allows unfettered access to Wikipedia, despite briefly dabbling with blocking the site entirely in 2015 after a dispute over an article on marijuana.
So, the study seems to suggest that overall the use of encryption by websites is a good thing for the state of online censorship around the world.
Of course, it might not have worked out so well for citizens of countries like China where the site is blocked altogether, but they can always turn to a reputable VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN to unblock Wikipedia and other censored sites for them.