A team of computer scientists from the University of Chicago and University of Maryland conducted the first ever large-scale research on internet censorship in Turkmenistan between 2021 and 2022. The paper is titled – Measuring and Evading Turkmenistan’s Internet Censorship. It examines how the Turkmen government is making use of firewalls and interference techniques to block access to the Internet.
The team discovered that the Turkmen government uses sophisticated technology and blocks way more websites than people may have thought before. They tested over 15.5 million domains for censorship and found that over 122,000 domains are blocked. After reviewing blocklists used by the Turkmen government filters, the team discovered 6,000 over-blocking that can affect 5.4 million domains unrelated to the domains that the government intended to block. Turkmen authorities block domains using ‘a rule based’ blocking system. For example, every domain name containing the word “porn” is automatically blocked even if it is not a pornography website. This can cause a lot of collateral damage because there are many unrelated websites that are blocked.
The group of top 20 categories account for almost 75% of all blocking regular expressions. The most censored content include:
- Adult content – often pornography, which accounts for almost 25% of all blocking rules.
- “Unknown” – which includes domains that are either (1) not hosting any Web content or (2) currently not actively online. Likely, these domains were added to blocklists of Turkmenistan’s firewall and remained blocked regardless of their inactive status.
- Websites related to business, news, social media and proxy avoidance used for circumventing censorship.
Blocked content also includes LGBTQ+, gender identity education and even domains of higher-educational institutions such as Brookings Institution, Liberty University and Harvard Divinity School. The government also blocks every website that ends with w.org, which are WordPress websites commonly used by activists and bloggers.
The research team found five new strategies that can evade internet censorship in Turkmenistan and rediscovered some techniques successfully used to fight internet censorship in China, Iran and Kazakhstan which also work in Turkmenistan. The team plans to share their dataset and codes with other researchers and developers to build circumvention tools that can be shared with public in Turkmenistan.