Who doubted HTTPS? Wikipedia switch thwarts state censorship

30 May 2017

Wikipedia. Image: Ink Drop/Shutterstock

Wikipedia’s full embrace of HTTPS in 2015 had a surprising effect on censorship around the globe. ‘S’ is for secure, after all.

Look at the top of your browser, on the left of the URL bar. What do you see? It should begin with ‘https’, probably in green.

What does this stand for? Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, the latter word being the key difference between its HTTP precursor.

What does it mean? It means added encryption and, as the name implies, more security. So much more security, in fact, that it has helped beat state censorship in some parts, as evidenced by Wikipedia in recent years.

It began in 2011 when Wikipedia added support for HTTPS, as well as the tried and not-so-trusted HTTP. So, if HTTP didn’t work in some countries, the HTTPS version still would.

Now, following a shift to entirely HTTPS in 2015, the effect has proved a bit more profound, according to new research in the US.

A report from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard claims that censorship of Wikipedia is lower now than it was prior to the shift.

It is believed that this is, in large part, down to how HTTPS shields certain activity from being monitored.

“HTTPS prevents censors from seeing which page a user is viewing, which means censors must choose between blocking the entire site and allowing access to all articles,” reads the paper.

Essentially, users in, say, China, could be found to be accessing Wikipedia. However, the page they are viewing is not known, so things such as the Tiananmen Square protests from 1989, largely thought to be blocked in China, could actually be being accessed.

The study was an arduous one, with the researchers combining search traffic from various years, trying to spot any changes following the HTTPS shift. This was largely down to the assumption that the move could lead to further censorship, in that Wikipedia, in general, would just be blocked.

When the study ended – with data up to June 2016 – China, Thailand and Uzbekistan were still “likely interfering intermittently with specific language projects of Wikipedia”.

However, on the whole, the global trends were pointing towards less censorship, not more.

“This finding suggests that the shift to HTTPS has been a good one in terms of ensuring accessibility to knowledge.”

Wikipedia. Image: Ink Drop/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic