If freedom on online needs to be maintained, it is better to have to be very cautious of dangerous content and tolerant of that which is offensive.
Internet and free flow of information
Open publishing on the Internet is allowing us to consume and contribute to the media in equal measure. A place of rich, chaotic and eclectic views, discussions and disputes is making so called ‘citizen journalism’ a valuable addition to traditional media types.
Citizen journalism, and in particular blogging, is for many writers an open and unrestricted window of engagement with the wider world. More importantly, blogs are often the only channel for uncensored news and free thought in societies where the printed press is controlled and restricted. But this borderless, casteless and raceless freedom of expression is not favourable to all. Political regimes the world over are constantly tightening control and restrictions on what we read and write online.
Reporters San Frontieres (http://www.rsf.org) recently published a report on the state of Internet censorship. They identified several ‘Internet black holes’ in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. These are places where bands of Internet police constantly filter and block content. Ostensible reasons for control are to fight terrorism, to protect vulnerable groups within society, to protect cultural and religious heritage, or to maintain social stability. Almost always, government restrictions on Internet content are a political power tool and a curtailment of the freedom of its users.
Governments and restrictive measures
Oppressive regimes are the most vulnerable to net-based publishing and free thinking. As one of the world’s most developed single-party states, China’s powers of censorship and control on the Internet are second to none. Dubbed ‘The Great Firewall’, China’s controls allow threatening foreign content to be blocked whilst home-grown dissidents can be tracked down and silenced. However, China’s special edited version of the Internet does not operate independently of familiar multinational Internet companies. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo all have strong business interests within the country and they ensure their operations comply with Chinese law. All these companies have sparked a great deal of controversy and media debate with their actions on the inside of the Great Fire Wall. Yahoo has been accused of supplying information to the authorities that directly led to the arrest and imprisonment of Chinese Internet users on multiple occasions. Google has been accused of tight self-censorship of its search engine in order to reach the Chinese market. Ultimately the justification for this seems to be built on the conviction that it is better to have restricted access to content than no access at all.
Let there not be the illusion that Internet censorship is the domain of closed non-democratic countries. As it is seen recently in India when major blog sites were shut down for days, democracies too can be all too ready to employ crude, knee-jerk, disproportionate techniques to block content. This time it was on the pretext of fighting terrorism. Luckily Indian bloggers were free, passionate and angry enough to condemn the act and make sure it was internationally denounced. Further, afield in the UK the home office has set a target of 2007 for implementing sophisticated blocking devices on all ISPs. Currently it is expected that the system will be largely used to filter sites containing child pornography, but blocking other content is simply a matter of adding addresses to a list. It takes little foresight to predict that the next sites to be blocked will be those ‘inciting religious hatred’ or ‘glorifying terrorism’.
Reaction to censorship
With the growth of censorship, as bleakly outlined by the RSF report, a counter movement has developed. ‘Hacktivism’ is a movement of computer hackers with a political and social conscience. Hackivism started in the underground world of hardcore computer geeks. Hacktivists gave themselves strange names such as The ‘Cult Of The Dead Cow’ and ‘Hacktivismo’.
In its earlier days the importance of Hacktivism as a civil society movement was perhaps overlooked, but this has changed. The University of Toronto hosts the CitizenLab(Version 4.0 – http://www.citizenlab.org) – a Hacklab that describes its work as ‘advanced research and development at the intersection of digital media and world civic politics.’ CitizenLab actively seeks to subvert censorship in closed societies such as China. The lab has produced a piece of software called Psiphon which allows users to share unrestricted Internet access via a https protocol like that widely used by online banking and shopping systems.
Psiphon allows users in countries with open Internet access to provide an access channel for trusted acquaintances in countries without normal access. Although individual Psiphon providers can be blocked on discovery, the system is distributed to such an extent that it should be almost impossible to completely stamp out all Psiphon access points. The project is funded by the Open Society Institute.
The battle for human rights and open society is now increasingly fought as fiercely online as it offline. Net based rights are taken extremely seriously by Amnesty International – an organisation that was originally founded after two Portuguese students were arrested for raising their glasses to freedom, is now defending Iranian bloggers making purely electronic ‘toasts’ to freedom. Kate Allen of Amnesty International UK announced the launch of a campaign called Irrepressible.Info(http://irrepressible.info) in May 2006. The campaign employs a purely symbolic but rather elegant method of subverting censorship by taking extracts of banned websites and allowing people to distribute them on their weblog or by eMail.
Internet censorship and level of awareness
But how much difference does Internet censorship make to the average net user in China, Iran or Uzbekistan, and do these users care that the content they are viewing is being censored?
It is doubtful that unrestricted access to the CNN news website is considered particularly relevant by the average Mandarin speaker living in China. Do people really care if the keyword they typed into Google returns 1.2 million hits instead of 15 million? Most bloggers are not even politically motivated. They blog about their daily lives, their pets and their social plans.
Many techniques employed by government censorship of the Internet are extremely weak and easy for even a non-technical person to work around. During the Indian blog censorship fiasco, instructions for subversion not only became available immediately, but tools required were also already in place. In fact, accessing the censored blogs became only marginally less straightforward than it always had been.
It is likely at least in the case of censorship in China and other closed regimes, that the perception of censorship that is more important than its technical effectiveness. As Nart Villeneuve of CitizenLab has commented on his blog (http://ice.citizen lab.org) what is more important is the way censorship defines topics of acceptable discussion to net users. Most users, either through disinterest, blind compliance or acceptance of the regime, will not attempt to circumvent censorship. This strengthens the tendency for self censorship and avoidance of content that may be deemed controversial. The result is a more deeply ingrained compliance with regulation than would be achievable through forced censorship alone.
Ethics of censorship
The emergence of technologies such as Psiphon raises further questions on the ethics of censorship circumvention. The lack of political or cultural borders on the Internet means that it is now possible to impose one’s definitions of acceptable and unacceptable content outside one’s own country and culture. Psiphon is built on the assumption that all censorship in all societies is wrong. In doing so it removes or seriously degrades any protective measures against content that may be genuinely damaging to society. Is it ethically correct to forcibly remove these protections in the name of free speech? Undeniably the freedom to publish on the Internet is not only dangerous to governments of closed political regimes. Its implications are dangerous and uncomfortable for its staunchest supporters, for children, for celebrities and for ordinary people.
If freedom on online needs to be maintained, it is better to have to be very cautious of dangerous content and tolerant of that which is offensive. To quote George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The reason one has to care is, how many Google hits one is getting, whether one has access or not to foreign news sites, whether readers of one’s blogs have to circumvent a block, just because if they don’t, they will blindly stumble into a future where their best tool for communicating openly with each other, thinking freely and giving voice to the disadvantaged and neglected is severely diminished. One simply cannot afford to entrust their Internet freedoms to government and big business.