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