Sep 29, 2014 · 3 minutes

China is attempting to prevent images of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong from reaching citizens in the mainland by blocking access to Instagram, according to reports from Reuters and the BBC. (People in Hong Kong can still access the site without any problems.)

Preventing access to social media during protests, elections, and other politically sensitive times has become something of a theme this year. Let's run down the list of digital blockades:

Access to Twitter and YouTube was blocked in Turkey when its prime minister wanted to keep damning information from reaching civilians before elections in March. As I wrote at the time:

The Twitter ban, which was criticized by Turkish President Abdullah Gul and largely ignored by Turkish citizens, was overturned by a court in Turkey’s capital on Wednesday. Yet Erdogan “continued to assail Twitter, saying the ban will remain in place unless the service complies with local Turkish court rulings to remove some content,” the New York Times said Thursday.

Erdogan drew connections between Twitter and YouTube in his condemnation of the ruling, saying that YouTube and its lawyers were behind Twitter’s decision to ignore Turkish requests to remove some information from its service. (Twitter says that it actually complied with the request by deleting two accounts and preventing a third from being viewed within Turkey.) Now it seems that Erdogan has focused his attentions on banning YouTube, which he believes is the force behind this conspiratorial curtain, despite no evidence to support these claims. In May, Thailand decided to ban Facebook from its country in an attempt to contain "unrest":

Thailand has become the latest country to block social networks in an effort to prevent its citizens from spreading information and unrest.

The country has instituted a temporary ban on Facebook and plans to ask other social networks, like Twitter and Instagram, for their “cooperation” in the future. Though the ban was initially blamed on a technical hitch, Reuters reports that it was in fact a deliberate attempt to prevent access to the social network at the Thailand military’s request. Then Iraq blocked access to many social networks and news sites while it fought ISIS in June -- a move that highlighted the danger of "balkanizing" the Internet in response to the disclosure of the National Security Agency's widespread surveillance programs, as I explained in a blog post:

One of the greatest fears prompted by the revelation of National Security Agency programs meant to surveil billions of people around the world is the so-called balkanization of the Web, where every country will establish its own intranet instead of allowing its citizens to access the Internet. (Whether this is frightening because of its economic impact on tech companies or because of the control it grants these governments over what their citizens can see depends on your perspective… and how much of your retirement fund is invested in Facebook and Google.)

These blockades should reinforce that fear. They don’t only show that a number of countries are willing to provide access to the Internet until the moment doing so runs counter to their own agendas; they also show just how easy it would be to secede from the World Wide Web. These aren’t theoretical arguments about what would happen if a country decided that it was sick of the United States’ spy programs — these are current examples of what a country can do whenever its government decides that Internet access is less important than its own goals. It isn't hard to see why China would follow these countries by blocking access to Instagram. The government already controls what people can access with its Great Firewall, which was recently expanded to include more Google services and the DuckDuckGo search engine, and has strict rules for what Chinese social networks and publications are allowed to do or say on the Web.

Censorship is the new normal all around the world. By now it's more surprising when countries don't block access to social media when their citizens are protesting or fighting a new war. China just happened to be ahead of the game with the Great Firewall, and it's not about to be left behind when other countries introduce even stricter rules for social media than its own.

[image via Shutterstock]