Internet Censorship: Is it Inevitable?

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Internet Censorship: Is it Inevitable?

Post by shanaya on February 16th 2010, 7:17 pm

Internet Censorship: Is it Inevitable?

The Internet has been called the last frontier of free speech, where you can say what you think without fear of repercussions. Of course, we all know that's no longer completely true - if it ever was. Most of us are aware that some countries exert heavy-handed government control over the Internet access of their citizens. The Chinese communist party (PRC) blocks web sites that express political opinions critical of the party, and even monitors what individuals do on the Internet. Dissidents have been imprisoned for signing petitions or speaking out against the government. Even such web sites as CNN, NBC and BBC News have been blocked, along with the Chinese version of Wikipedia.

Chinese search engine results are filtered, as well. If you search on a key word that is on the censored list, you get no results. Search providers must abide by the regulations to operate in China. Some of the blocked words and phrases include the Chinese forms of: democracy, dictatorship, genocide, oppression and evil. References to certain groups, events and politicians are also blocked.

A recent hacking attack on Google and other companies that was reported to have originated in China brought the censorship issue into the news. The attacks occurred in December, and in early January, Google announced that they were going to stop censoring search results on and might even pull out of China entirely if they couldn't operate an unfiltered search service within Chinese law. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got involved.

However, it's been a month since Google's initial announcement, and AP reports that the "Great Firewall of China" is still up and Google is still there, with their search results still being filtered. The company is apparently in negotiations with the Chinese government. Of course, all this is complicated further by the fact that China has the world's largest online population and its online advertising market is predicted to be up to $20 billion per year by 2014:

Of course, China isn't the only country that censors the Internet; it's just the biggest. Iran uses what is called "one of the most extensive technical filtering systems in the world" to block web sites that run counter to the government's purposes - including not just the sites of political dissenters but also social networking sites such as Facebook and Flickr and many foreign blogs. Since all Internet traffic that comes into or out of Iran goes through one gateway, the Telecommunications Company of Iran, it's easy for them to monitor and block traffic, and the filtering got much more intense there after last summer's elections:

Although we might think of Internet censorship as something associated only with totalitarian regimes, that's not the case. Australian citizens are currently up in arms (well, figuratively) over the government's efforts to control Internet content there. The party in power reportedly is getting ready to introduce legislation to force ISPs in Australia to block web sites on a list compiled by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Google is part of this controversy, too, having said it would not "voluntarily" comply with the government's request.

Of course, in a democracy like Australia - or the U.S. - censorship is carefully presented as something that must be done to protect the citizenry, most often the children. Even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, even here some speech is deemed to be more free than other speech. Child pornography is the most glaring example of a case where the mere act of looking at pictures can get a person thrown in prison for a long, long time - even if no real children were used in the making of those pictures. In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld a 2003 law that makes it a federal offense to obtain or provide sexually explicit images of children, regardless of whether the images are computer-generated. In fact, just requesting or offering such images is illegal even if no images exist.

Now we all know that pedophiles do tremendous harm to children and who can argue with curbing their rights to free speech? But does it become a slippery slope when you start making one type of speech illegal? There's another law in the making that's also designed to protect children, called the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. It would impose penalties of up to two years in prison for "coercing, intimidating, harassing or causing substantial emotion distress to a person" via electronic means (email, web boards, or other network technologies).

In most states, harassment is already a crime, but to rise to that level requires more than just "causing distress." After all, it doesn't take much for some people to become distressed. What if you get into a political discussion in an email group and post opinions (or even facts) that reflect negatively on a candidate or cause that another group member believes in? If what you say causes that person to feel emotionally distressed, will the feds should up at your door to carry you away? It may sound silly, but when it comes to the law, wording is very important and the wording of this one is very troubling.

I don't think anyone advocates completely free and unfettered speech on the Internet. Obviously the concept of free speech shouldn't be a defense for plagiarism or copyright infringement or libel. But those things traditionally have been considered matters for the civil courts, not the criminal justice system. If you post something I created (writing, a picture, a song) without my permission, I could sue you and get an injunction forcing you to take it down and/or get a monetary judgment against you. If you posted false statements about me that damaged my reputation, caused me to lose my job or broke up my marriage, likewise I could take you to court and get compensation for my pain and suffering.

The trend today is to make every possible undesirable behavior a crime. Because the Internet is a venue that brings together many different people from many different places, cultures, social classes and belief systems, there is the potential for a lot of undesirable behaviors. Are we to make them all criminal offenses? Aside from the obvious practical drawbacks (even greater overcrowding of jails and prisons and the high costs of processing so many criminal actions), there are sociological implications. If everything is a crime, then everyone becomes a de facto criminal. And if we turn a whole society of generally law abiding people into criminals, what does that do to respect for the law in general? And who will enforce all these new federal Internet crimes? And just how far away are we from being just like the totalitarian regimes whose censorship of thought and speech we abhor?

We may be closer than you think. Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate last year that would give the White House unprecedented control over the Internet, with the power to declare a "cybersecurity emergency relating to "non-governmental computers networks" (yours and mine?) and "do what's necessary" to deal with the alleged threat.

That bill hasn't passed into law, but it's not dead, either. Just last week, the House passed its own cybersecurity bill, and it could be joined with the Senate bill (SB 773).

It's something to think about. Tell us what you think about it. Is freedom of speech on the Internet (and indeed, everywhere else) long gone? Was it ever a viable concept, or just a utopian ideal that couldn't work in practice? Is it worth giving up freedom of speech to see that pedophiles and other criminals get punished? Are we creating a nation of weak children by outlawing the bullying behaviors that were once a normal part of growing up? Or is making those behaviors illegal a step in the right direction toward a more civilized society? What online behaviors should (or shouldn't) be crimes? We invite you to discuss these topics in our forum at

This is a very hard area to control and legislate. I think one one hand we are protecting but also hindering. Not sure what the solution could be. Sad
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