• Andrew Johnston

On the Mundane Realities of Censorship

This is supposed to be a writer's blog, with writing advice and background notes on works in progress and the odd original story. It is not supposed to be about politics or current events. As it is, though, politics and current events are conspiring to prevent me from writing about those topics, so here we are.


I currently live in a country with probably the world's most well-known censorship apparatus. The extent to which the government censors the internet in particular has been discussed at length, usually by people who possess neither the technical expertise to speak with intelligence nor any meaningful first-hand experience. I can, at the very least, offer the latter:


The VPN that I use to evade censorship quit working on May 21st. This is not unusual - it tends to coincide with the kind of world events that evoke more scrutiny. It is unusual for it to last nearly four weeks. What's more, the blocks that killed my VPN also hit a broad swath of websites. This is easily the most aggressive blocking campaign I've seen to date, going far beyond the expected news sites, search engines and foreign services in competition with domestic ones. This time, it got downright weird.


The first block I noticed was my RSS feed reader, which was not a shock - I was anticipating that one for a while. The sites I use to manage my podcasts (such as Stitcher) are blocked, as are most of the podcasts themselves regardless of topic. The sites I used to double-check my word count are blocked. Some big freelancing sites are blocked, including the one I was using to source some work for other projects. Most Wiki-type sites are blocked, even those intended for trivial topics like comic books or video games. Speaking of video games, a number of ROM archives - the kinds of places one might find obscure games from the 90's - are blocked. However, by far the strangest block I've seen is random.org, a site used to generate random numbers and number sequences.


Already, I can sense you trying to find some thread here, some narrative to explain all this, but we're not done yet - for you see, there are many other sites that are partially blocked. This might be due to blocked APIs or servers or some other form of interference which results in the site loading in a largely nonfunctional form. Take this site, for example. The front end works fine, but the back end is mangled. I can't edit the layout at all - the editor fails to load every time - and I can't upload images or even attach images I've already uploaded. It loads slowly, too, and checking analytics is a crapshoot as it times out about about half the time. Slow loading and time outs are a real issue with a lot of writing markets, to the point that many of them are effectively blocked even though they are technically capable of loading.


From this chair, all I can do is speculate on what's going on. The government is blocking the world in such an indiscriminate manner that I can't imagine that there's a plan here beyond "shut out foreign influence." It might be that they're range blocking foreign IP addresses, taking out potentially tens of thousands of addresses with each one - very much a sledgehammer solution. Or they may be blocking sites from certain countries out of general policy and making case-by-case exceptions. I really can't say, but it is annoying.


Does "annoying" make this sound excessively trivial? I know, this isn't the way that people are supposed to talk about censorship, but the truth is much more mundane than bad fiction might have you think. Live in a world of controlled media, and that control becomes less an abuse of power and more a day-to-day aggravation - something to cope with, something to work around. Put it this way - you know how the onset of a pandemic ended up being decidedly more banal than it's usually depicted in apocalyptic fiction? How instead of fighting off raiding death squads as society crumbled, your most immediate problem was finding a TV show you hadn't already watched five times? Well, don't think of censorship as tyranny - think of it as software with extremely bad DRM.


It's this mindset that's going to prevent me from getting any personal essays published. Western new sources love to publish stories that make other countries look oppressive, but those stories are expected to follow a certain narrative. You know what I mean, the one in which the lone intrepid voice in the wilderness bravely defies the autocrats to report on the suffering of a fearful oppressed populace. But I'm not prepared to do that because it just ain't the way things are.


This is a funny old world, at least as far as storytelling goes. I find myself in a reality in which people can't decide what kind of stories they even want. It's a world where fiction is supposed to be more sophisticated than the old days (where "sophisticated" means "heroes" who are sociopathic monsters and villains who won't shut up about social problems), yet news narratives still favor the black hats and white hats. It's a world where people value "democracy" more as a brand name than a concept. Maybe if I was more willing to play the game, to be more shameless, I could actually get ahead.


In the meantime, I'd really just like to talk to my freelancers and watch my stupid little videos.

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