Jason Parms

Wikipedia’s Switch to HTTPS has Successfully Fought Government Censorship

Since the birth of Wikipedia, countless people around the world have been able to access encyclopedic articles about virtually any topic they could want in a matter of seconds, facilitating learning and advancement for all. However, there are governments in the world today that don’t appreciate this freedom of information. They seek to censor pages they find unfit, inflammatory, or offensive, stifling the curiosity and basic rights of their citizens.

Wikipedia is an avid advocate for freedom of information and has been part of the constant battle against censorship on the internet. They made a big move to strike at this problem in 2015 by switching from Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) to Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS).

There was some question as to whether this move would have the positive effect they were hoping for, but a recent Harvard study has discovered that the results have indeed been positive. Internet censorship has shown a meaningful decrease in a number of countries thanks to Wikipedia’s strategic use of SSL to protect users’ privacy and freedom.

Wikipedia observed many instances of censorship before switching to HTTPS

As Wikipedia grew and developed across new languages and countries, the problem of censorship grew along with it. For example, one of the earlier notable instances happened back in 2004, when the Chinese government blocked the Chinese-language Wikipedia project around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Since then, China has blocked the Wikipedia site entirely, striving to instead create their own online encyclopedia where they can control the information made available to the public. And China isn’t the only country censoring Wikipedia and the internet as a whole. There are numerous examples where censorship of the Wikipedia site hampered user searches according to government preference.

Some are more obvious and expected, such as Iran censoring content related to sex, women’s rights, and religious topics. Others may come as more of a surprise, like Russia censoring a Wikipedia article about marijuana or articles about German metal bands being blocked in the UK. Wikipedia states that it has been censored in countries including:

  • China
  • France
  • Iran
  • Pakistan
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Syria
  • Thailand
  • Tunisia
  • Turkey
  • United Kingdom
  • Uzbekistan

Sometimes, the entire Wikipedia site was blocked, but other times censorship happened for only select articles. This intermittent or partial censorship was possible on the HTTP version of Wikipedia because the government could see the specific pages being visited and block only certain ones. By making the switch to HTTPS only, Wikipedia stopped government spying on user Wikipedia viewing.

HTTPS makes Wikipedia censorship an all or nothing fight

HTTP Wikipedia sessions were not encrypted, so the government could see the specific pages each user was searching for and block what they didn’t like while leaving access to the rest. HTTPS, however, employs SSL certificates, which means all data that travels between the browser and server is screened with encryption.

Someone watching can see that a user is on the Wikipedia site, but they can’t see the specific pages being viewed.HTTPS forces censors to make a choice. They must either block Wikipedia as a whole to prevent people from potentially accessing information that the government doesn’t like, or they have to mind their own business and allow citizens to access Wikipedia freely to learn and read as they choose.

After the recent study at Harvard was complete, it became clear that most countries where censorship of Wikipedia was a problem chose to drop their efforts entirely.

A Harvard Study Revealed HTTPS has Reduced Censorship of Wikipedia

The Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard conducted an intensive study that observed the accessibility of Wikipedia projects in 15 countries from before and after the switch to HTTPS. Their observations included data from both user perspective and the side of the Wikipedia server as well.

What they found was very promising information. As a whole, Wikipedia censorship has greatly decreased. A majority of countries in the study showed no evidence of censorship at all, and this is attributed in large part to the difficulty of screening presented by HTTPS.

Of course, not every story was a success. In addition to China, Turkey has also blocked Wikipedia in its entirety, preferring the blanket ban to the possibility of users viewing pages they don’t approve of. Despite these instances, the HTTPS move by Wikipedia has been determined as a successful move against internet censorship.

SSL is Proven Technology in the Fight for Freedom of Information

Wikipedia has made it clear that SSL can be a powerful protocol in the fight to keep information private and protect the rights of internet users around the globe. Encryption doesn’t need to be used solely for payment information or access credentials. SSL certificates can be used to protect privacy in general, deter spying into personal browsing or business, and make it possible for people to pursue information in peace.

The war against internet censorship is by no means over, and there are probably many battles to come in the effort to free information and protect human rights. However, Wikipedia certainly seems to have won an important victory of which they can be proud.