To say that the Internet can be controversial is a supreme understatement. With but a few keystrokes, sites containing literally anything can be happened upon by almost anyone; and therein lies the problem. This vast database of fact and fiction can supply a student with research notes or a terrorist with bomb-making instructions, and while some celebrate the libertarian nature of the world wide web, others seek to limit its scope and restrict its access.
Probably the most famous example of Internet censorship is “the great firewall of China,” a term which refers to the Chinese government’s ongoing efforts to restrict what sites its citizens have access to.
Chinese Internet censorship
According to the website GreatFireWallofChina.org, censorship in China is a collaborative effort between internet service providers, companies such as Google and Yahoo and the Chinese government, which the site claims has some 30,000 civil servants monitoring the Internet at all times. The first two examples practice self-censorship, restricting their customer’s access to sites in accordance with the laws of China. It is difficult to determine what kinds of things the Chinese government chooses to block from its citizens.
According to James Fallows’ article, “The connection has been reset” (The Atlantic, March 2008), defining what sites on the internet are actually blocked by the Chinese government can be a difficult task, partially because the government is constantly blocking and unblocking sites. “One day you go to the National Public Radio site [ . . . ] no problem, the next time [ . . . ] the great firewall of china has immobilized the site,” says Fallows. He goes on to explain that temporary blockages such as this may have something to do with the site posting a story which is critical of the Chinese government, which Chinese filter software picks up makes the decision to to censor, an action that happens in a matter of milliseconds.
As mentioned above, in addition to Internet censorship by the government, China also asks companies such as Google to censor the searches made by Chinese citizens, something Google stopped doing on March 22, 2010.
Google leaves China
The Chinese government asks that companies operating within China abide by Chinese law, which includes the censoring of information that the Chinese government finds offensive. While this includes things like pornography, it also includes information that is critical of the Chinese government, and, ironically, information on China’s Internet censorship.
On Jan. 12, 2010 Google announced on its blog, Googleblog.blogspot.com, that it had been the victim of cyber attacks, which it claimed had originated in China. The attacks, according to Google, targeted several businesses in many sectors, such as finance, media and technology, but were directed primarily at the Gmail accounts of people who have spoken publicly about human rights in China.
While Google claims that most of the accounts targeted were not breached, it did note that third parties, who had likely obtained the accounts passwords through phishing or other nefarious means, were routinely accessing several other Gmail accounts.
This, in addition to increased pressure from the Chinese government to continue censoring searches, prompted Google to announce on March 22, 2010 that it was taking its China based Google page, Google.cn, down.
Google.cn traffic was redirected to Google.hk, which is based in Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong is not subject to the same censorship laws as mainland China, Google hopes that this move will allow it to offer uncensored search results to mainland Chinese without violating China’s laws.
Other countries censoring the Internet
According to Google’s director of public policy, Alan Davidson, more than 40 countries censor what their citizens can see on the internet, and more than 25 countries have blocked Google over the years. Surprisingly, some of these countries are Western democracies.
While it does not censor right now, Australia is planning to censor the Internet in the near future.
In what has been called a “Chinese-style system” by Emma Rowley of Sky News, the Australian government announced plans to force Internet service providers (ISPs) to filter out search results which would direct users toward sites offering various forms of pornography, sexual violence or instructions on committing a crime.
According to Rowley, the government’s position is that, by exercising these controls, they hope to “protect people, especially children, from harmful material found online.”
However, critics of the system, such as Colin Jacobs, told Sky News that he doesn’t know why the government is putting the effort into the system, since “any motivated user will be able to get around it, quite [easily].”
The Australian legislation is slated to be introduced to Parliament in August 2010 and would likely be implemented a year after that.
Internet censorship at home
While the Canadian government does not censor the Internet, companies within Canada have been accused of refusing customers access to some sites.
In 2005 the Canadian telecom company, Telus blocked access to Voices-for-change.com for Telus Internet subscribers, a site which supported a union which Telus was engaged in a dispute with at the time. Telus argued that the site was posting photographs of employees who chose to cross the picket line, and blocked access to the site in the interest of safety and privacy of these individuals. Despite the motivation, this action raises an interesting ethical question: do Canadian Internet service providers have the right to block or slow down content at their own discretion?
The government of Canada has been wrestling with this question, which has been dubbed by the press as “net neutrality,” and “traffic shaping” by the ISPs. NDP MP Charlie Angus calls the practice “monkey-wrenching with the free flow of information,” and has referred to it as an example of “a few loose players being able to squeeze out smaller competition.”
Angus went on to say in his 2008 address to parliament that allowing ISPs to shape traffic hurt innovation, and that “net neutrality was the cornerstone of an innovation economy.”
Several countries, including Finland and Estonia have declared access to the Internet a human right, and the UN is pushing for universal access. A recent BBC poll indicated that 80 per cent of adults across 26 countries felt that access to the Internet is a fundamental right. Yet, in this day and age, millions of people lack fair access to uncensored Internet.