Nov 01, 2019

Censoring at the source (code): Spain joins Russia and China in GitHub censorship

Spain censoring GitHub

Spain’s government boldly requested that GitHub remove repositories with APK files for an app that protestors are using to organize demonstrations. Spanish telecoms also briefly—and likely incorrectly—blocked all of GitHub.

The controversy is evidence of GitHub's growing influence over access to information and the role that developer platforms can play in political and social issues.

The takedown request was sent by Spain’s Guardia Civil in an attempt to quell growing unrest in Catalonia.

In 2017, leaders in Catalonia organized a referendum on independence from Spain. Earlier this month, Spain’s Supreme Court convicted Catalonia leaders of sedition and sentenced many to jail time. The region has been rocked by protests ever since.

Tsunami Democratic, a group of supporters for Catalonia independence, distributed the app through a public repository on GitHub. The now-removed app helps demonstrators organize street protests and acts of civil disobedience. The Spanish government accuses Tsunami Democratic of encouraging terrorist attacks.

The implication is massive: GitHub is becoming both a development platform and a content distribution platform.

The app APK files are now available on a pro-independence Telegram channel. That a social media channel is a backup for a GitHub repository says much about how content is distributed to users across the internet in today’s developer-first world.

Given its open source nature, code floats freely across GitHub. Content often gets mixed in, blurring the line between development and distribution. GitHub conveniently bypasses gatekeepers, too, like official app stores and web hosts.

For that reason, blocking GitHub is powerful. Governments can halt development and distribution in one fell swoop. It’s like banning a newspaper by both destroying its printing press and jailing its paper boys.

Governments looking to block access to information in our developer-centric world will increasingly turn to GitHub where authorities can effectively quash access to information at the source.

GitHub’s gov-takedowns repository, where GitHub publishes takedown requests from governments, includes three countries: China, Russia, and now Spain.

That list will likely grow with time.

Want to get more of these in your inbox?

Subscribe for weekly updates from the Software team.