Category Archives: censorship

Debating Britain’s online porn filters

Earlier this week, I took part in a lively discussion of Britain’s upcoming filtering of online porn on Al Jazeera’s The Stream program. The producers asked me on after reading my recent analysis piece in The Globe and Mail, in which I expressed hope that the filters might actually work, in which case they would ultimately lead to more innovation and awareness around encryption tools. With governments increasingly spying on their citizens, the time for the mainstreaming of these tools is just about here.

Also on the show were Fiona Elvines, the operations coordinator at Rape Crisis South London, feminist blogger Zoe Stavri and Leigh Porter from UK-based Safer Media.

It was a fun discussion that covered many angles, from the unlikeliness of the filters working and the intricacies of rape culture to freedom of speech and the protection of children. For some good weekend viewing, check it out above.

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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in censorship, internet, sex


Cathay Pacific introduced to the Streisand Effect

Add Cathay Pacific to the list of companies that have been burned by the Streisand Effect, the term given to the phenomenon where trying to hide something actually draws more attention to it. The phrase was coined in 2003 when singer/actress Barbra Streisand tried to suppress photos of her mansion and, in doing so, gave it more publicity.

In the airline’s case, the situation arises from a rather humourous video released last week by Next Media Animation, the Taiwanese company that has made its name on producing computer-generated takes on current events (who can forget NMA’s interpretation of the Tiger Woods sex scandal?) This time around, NMA’s video presents accusations that Cathay Pacific is catering to perverts in business class by providing them with a no-questions-asked environment in which to masturbate.

The charges seem to centre on three main points: that other passengers have witnessed such acts and reported them to seemingly uninterested flight attendants; that the airline shows uncensored movies, complete with nudity and sex; and that the reclining business class seats have mirrors that allow the alleged perverts to see when others are approaching.

The video has been taken down repeatedly, leading to NMA putting up the following that summarizes the situation:

It’s a pretty silly story that probably would have gone away if Cathay Pacific had ignored it. After all, any other airline could be accused of the same thing. The only thing Cathay seems to be guilty of is showing uncensored movies, which could have been explained away as an experiment or mistake.

Instead, the airline harassed YouTube into taking the video down, thereby angering NMA and other free-speech supporters. The Taiwanese company promptly put the video back up and called on Google to protect YouTube as a platform for satire, parody and criticism. “We strongly oppose any such efforts. We’re Next Media Animation. We don’t like censorship. We don’t like bullies,” the company said.

Way to go Cathay Pacific. What could have been a minor issue may now result in the airline being known as the favourite of flying perverts everywhere.

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Posted by on October 11, 2012 in airline, censorship


The fight for journalistic freedom is universal

Thursday night, I had the privilege of attending a gala dinner held by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. It was an inspiring night that honoured journalists - and some non-journalists - who have spoken up and fought for the right of free speech.

Among those given awards for their work were Ron Haggart, a legend in the industry who worked for The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star among others, as well as the trio of scientists - doctors Margaret Jayson, Gerard Lambert and Shiv Chopra - who blew the whistle on Monsanto’s Bovine Growth Hormone back in the late 1990s. Mohamed Abdelfattah and Khaled al-Hammadi were also honoured for their respective, tireless work in Egypt and Yemen, where they have faced oppression and even death on a regular basis.

The evening reminded me of the context in which many of us technology journalists operate. While we spend many, many words in talking about the latest iPhone features or even the failings of telecommunications regulators, we should never forget there are journalists out there risking their lives to tell stories about basic human rights and their respective violations.

That’s not to detract from what any tech reporter does, but we do need to be grateful to these other journalists for laying the groundwork that allows us to do what we do. Such journalism helped create, protect and maintain the freedom we have here in Canada and it will, hopefully, do the same in the still-developing parts of the world.

While many people would equate organizations such as the CJFE with fighting for rights in oppressive regimes, the organization is active here too. With government obfuscation on events such as last year’s G20 and Canada’s poor showing in providing access to information, there is much to battle for within our very own borders.

This includes issues related to technology. With more nations rising up and joining the digital economy, more and more reporters will have to become de facto technology journalists, or at least tech savvy, if they are to do their jobs well.

Fighting for freedom in the advanced world isn’t necessarily done at the point of a gun, but it’s no less important. There are many ways to help out the CJFE - and you don’t have to be a journalist to do so. Check out its “take action” page to see how.


Posted by on November 25, 2011 in censorship, government, internet


UK on a fool’s errand to try and ban porn

British Prime Minister David Cameron has embarked on a rather humorous endeavour to try and save the United Kingdom from porn. Earlier this week, it was reported that, at Cameron’s behest, the four largest internet service providers in the UK would begin an opt-in program where they would automatically block porn websites unless customers explicitly said they wanted them.

No sooner did the ink (real or virtual) dry on that story than those same ISPs - BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin - started talking about how the system would have no effect. The opt-in process, it turns out, will apply only to brand new customers, which means very little because only about 5% of people change service providers in a given quarter.

That’s not exactly the best way to say it will have no effect - after all, at that rate it will only take 10 quarters or two-and-a-half years to block the majority of the country from porn. Still, the ISPs’ chafing at the idea is what makes Cameron’s effort humorous because it’s doomed to fail for a host of reasons.

Firstly, there are the freedom of speech issues. The Australian government’s effort to enact a similar ban has hit all kinds of snags, from coalition partners refusing to support it to several big ISPs refusing to play ball, even with something as universally deplorable as child porn. Things have gotten downright silly Down Under, with the banning efforts extending to erotica that features small-breasted women, which supposedly encourages pedophilia. The resultant joke, of course, is that Australians want their porn stars to have big boobs.

Then there are the logistical problems. How, exactly, does something qualify for the banned list? China did ip male of the household or the divorce rate is going to climb.

Banning porn on the internet is ultimately a fool’s errand. It’s here to stay and, while laws and technology can try to help, in the end its parents’ responsibility to ensure their kids aren’t getting to where they shouldn’t be.

If any country were successful in banning online porn, however, it’s a safe bet its internet traffic would take a nosedive. While accurate numbers are tough to come by, there are some hints that suggest pornography still makes up a good chunk of traffic. Five of the 100 most-visited websites (that are in English) are porn-related, according to Alexa rankings, while Ogi Ogas - author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts - says about 13% of web searches are for erotic content.

Applying this chain of logic to Canada, if internet providers here really were worried about congestion on their networks, they wouldn’t be enacting usage-based billing to try and slow consumption with the likes of Netflix. They’d be trying to get porn banned.


Posted by on October 13, 2011 in censorship, internet, sex


Starting the new year off with a ban

Happy New Year everybody! I hope everyone had a fun and safe holiday season and that 2011 brings good fortune to all.

I had a nice rest over the holidays, which is good because things are going to ramp up this week again with the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I’m flying out tomorrow and will endeavour to post some reports here from the show. I’ll definitely have some goodies to share next week.

In the meantime, what better way to kick off a new year than with some bans? We’ve got a good trio of them here in Sex, Bombs and Burgers land.

First up, China successfully shut down 60,000 porn websites this year, netting about 5,000 people who ran them in the process. Yay for China, right? Well, let’s not forget this is also a country that has banned Facebook and one that Google has largely pulled out of. So yeah - those plans that China has for becoming a world innovation leader? Not gonna happen while they ban large portions of the internet.

Next up is the inexorable march to stamp out fast food. A group called the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine has asked the mayor of Detroit to ban the opening of new fast food restaurants because the city has the fourth-highest rate of heart disease in the U.S., and of course all those burgers and fries are apparently responsible. What’s awesome is the response from the Michigan Restaurant Association spokesperson: “Restaurants do not lead to obesity, what leads to obesity is maintaining an unhealthy lifestyle.” I’ve heard that before, except it used to go something like, “Guns don’t kill people…”

Last up, in a move that should surprise no one, the U.S. military last month banned the use of removable media. Following the (cyber) atom bomb of the Wikileaks fiasco, anyone caught using a DVD, CD or USB drive will be court-martialed. Yikes. Guess all those whistleblowers will just have to break out the retro technology: it’s back to the photocopier and miniature cameras for them.

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Posted by on January 3, 2011 in censorship, china, Facebook, food, Google, sex, war


Internet censorship on the rise

If you thought only totalitarian nations such as North Korea and China are censoring internet use, you’re very wrong. According to Ron Diebert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, internet censorship is on the rise big time - and certainly in developed countries. While only three or four countries censored in 2002, the number is currently 30 and growing.

Diebert, who is a member of the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) - a censorship watchdog - gave a presentation at Google’s headquarters recently. The search giant is a fan of keeping the internet open, not only because its business interests depend on it, but also because many of the people who work there are legitimate backers of things like free speech and the power of a free internet. Google has a commentary on Diebert’s presentation, as well as his full 44-minute video, on its public policy blog.

In a nutshell, many developing countries that are only just now getting online are already investing in sophisticated technologies that allow governments to block objectionable content. “These governments are ‘baking in’ tools to co-opt Web 2.0 features rather than play catch-up after criticism has been aired,” Google says.

Developed countries, meanwhile, are blacklisting sites without even telling the public about it, so people have no idea what they’re missing. This is resulting in dirty tricks being played against the people. “In the next few years, the ONI predicts that we will see more targeted surveillance and malware tactics like spamming to make monitoring and documenting government censorship more difficult.”

It’s pretty shading sounding and, as ONI reports, North America is not exempt. While internet service providers here don’t engage in widespread technical filtering, “the internet is far from ‘unregulated’ in either state,” ONI says. Internet censorship here is usually justified by one of four rationales: national security, intellectual property, computer security, and of course, child protection and morality.

The ONI cites one known case where authorities tried to proactively filter child pornography, but ultimately managed to catch legitimate websites in their net as well. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office had its efforts shut down by a district court in 2004 after its list prevented access to many websites that had nothing to do with child porn.

The case illustrates the thorny issue of how porn is often the thin edge of the wedge - the cause of protecting children, which nobody in their right mind can dispute, is often used to leverage the erosion of other rights. How to eliminate horrible content like child porn while maintaining individual freedoms is perhaps the one burning question brought forward by the internet.

The above stuff is just a snippet of the ONI’s report on North America - they’ve got reports on individual countries which, if you’re interested in free speech, make for some amazing reading. I highly recommend it.

And wouldn’t you know it, Australia goes and announces today that it will enact internet filters. The reason given: protecting the children.

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Posted by on December 15, 2009 in censorship, internet, sex


Child porn: shouldn’t the police do the policing?

The big news of the day is that our federal government here in Canada is set to announce new legislation that will require internet service providers to help authorities nail purveyors of online child porn. It’s an issue that has, not surprisingly, provoked visceral reaction from Canadians in several ways.

Firstly, nobody in their right minds supports child porn - it’s sick, horrible and the people who peddle it should rightly go to jail. Something definitely needs to be done about it - the question is what. As many commenters on the CBC story (which was written by a colleague of mine) pointed out, the government’s proposed rules may not be the answer.

The legislation will force ISPs to alert authorities if they come across any host sites linked to child porn, and it will force them to guard any evidence of sites that may have used one of their servers. ISPs would also have to report any “tip” provided to them about potential child porn sites to police.

There are a number of questions that arise from this approach. What happens if your computer is infected and recruited to be part of a botnet, which automatically spreads the offending material without you having an inkling that it’s happening? Also, what’s to stop abuse of the “tip” system? If somebody doesn’t like you, what’s to stop them from reporting your personal blog to the ISP, who then sics the police on you? One commenter on internet guru Michael Geist’s blog summed up the issue quite nicely (and somewhat emotionally) thusly:

Child porn is a lever which is used to pry away our privacy. Yes, child porn is wrong, but those who made it already committed crimes. The act of creation is alone illegal. What’s scary is that child porn is ephemeral and suddenly when you are in possession of this ephemeral illegal information you can go to jail. Have fun proving you didn’t know it was there because your PC was being used as a node in a botnet.

As the commenter said, child porn is indeed a lever - and at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, if we allow the government to intrude in this sense, where does it end? During the summer, I posted about how a British ISP blocked access to this blog through its McDonald’s hotspots, presumably because it had the word “boobs” in its URL (alas, rest in peace “boobs”) or because I occasionally discuss sex and porn. Anyone who has read this blog knows that the most risque or offensive things that ever appear here are pictures of the latest fast-food monstrosity, yet it’s already enough to get blocked.

I’m not sure what the answer is to stop child porn, but the Canadian government’s approach seems like a fairly lazy one. Rather than trying to get the RCMP to do its job, the government looks like it’s trying to offload the work of policing the internet from, y’know, real police to ISPs. The RCMP supposedly has a cyber-crime strategy - or at least they were working on one last year - so shouldn’t they be in charge of finding and preventing this stuff?

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Posted by on November 24, 2009 in britain, censorship, internet, sex


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