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Online Filtering and Censorship at Issue on the Internet

Issue is complex for some countries

A high school student messages a friend in Colorado
A high school student messages a friend in Colorado. (©AP/WWP)

By Carolee Walker
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- “Text messaging,? “chat rooms,? “blogs,? “e-zines.? These are just a few of the new Internet tools for spreading information and opinions. Does the Internet create a new world of free speech? Or does it pose problems that call for limits on such freedom?

As Internet activity expands worldwide, methods of filtering have become more far-reaching. Today a number of nations censor Internet communication in some fashion.

In 2005, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent and nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting press freedom around the world, documented Internet censorship in 22 countries.

Different governments have different reasons for filtering the Internet.  Protecting national security and community-accepted standards of decency are frequently cited goals. Yet on occasion, legitimate efforts to regulate Internet access to advance these goals have encountered legal difficulties.

The U.S. government believes the Internet is a powerful tool for innovation, commerce and the wide dissemination of expression, according to Josette Shiner, under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs in an article published in the Financial Times in May. (See related article.)

“Nonetheless, we oppose illicit online activities, such as copyright infringement, child pornography crimes, and criminal incitement to commit violent acts,? Shiner wrote.

In the United States, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would have required Internet service providers (ISPs) to prevent the distribution of “indecent? material to children, was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In this context, few people questioned whether the U.S. Congress really intended to protect community-accepted standards of decency.

In other cases, however, the real objective behind filtering -- even filtering undertaken with the alleged purpose of combating “indecency? -- is to curtail or censor political dissent. Pornography sites are blocked completely in Saudi Arabia, but John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, told the Washington File, that filtering in that country has become more pervasive and covers many topics beyond pornography.


According to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices -- 2005, released by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in March, efforts to restrict access to the Internet are commonplace. (See related article.)

In several countries, including Venezuela, Belarus, China and Saudi Arabia, according to the report, the state determines what kinds of Web sites people should not be permitted to access, and then arranges for those Web sites to be blocked. Governments also frequently have required ISPs, including American companies Google and Yahoo, operating outside the United States, to install software that enforces the country’s censorship laws.

In some countries, including China and Singapore, ISPs also are required to “police? their clients.  Chinese and Singaporean authorities permit citizens to get general information or to have a chat room or blog to exchange ideas. If monitors listening to a chat room or “viewing? a blog find that people have exceeded the legal boundaries of speech in that country, the chat room or blog will be closed down, or the ISPs themselves will be subjected to penalties or worse.

According to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2005, China employs up to 50,000 people to monitor citizens’ Internet use and to control its content. (See related article.)


“This issue has turned into a complex cat-and-mouse game in the past few years as the rise of citizen-generated media has become an important topic,? Palfrey observed. In recent years various strategies have been devised by those intent on evading would-be restrictions on or censorship of Internet speech.

According to a National Intelligence Open Source Center (formerly the Foreign Broadcast Information Service) report in January, despite the constant threat of government censorship and imprisonment in Iran, blogs have become an important means of communication for men and, perhaps even more important, for women in that country.  Iranian bloggers have found ways to bypass filtering by running sites through multiple servers and using foreign-based blog servers.

New software programs also have been developed to help people avoid censorship by enabling them to operate online anonymously.  The California-based company Anonymizer specializes in developing technology that helps people protect their online identity by preventing other computers from being able to identify the user’s computer’s Internet Protocol (IP) address.  Another software program, called FreeNet, is intended to make a person “invisible? on the Web.

According to a December 2005 CNN.com article, Freenet is decentralized, “which means there is no central server and no one knows who’s using it so it cannot be shut down.?  On the other hand, this decentralized feature “also opens up the service to abuse, potentially by pedophiles, terrorists and other criminals.?

Since its launch in February, according to Shiner, the State Department’s Global Internet Freedom Task Force has been reviewing the foreign policy aspects of Internet freedom, including the use of technology to restrict access to political content and to track and repress dissidents and the impact of these trends on U.S. companies. (See related article.)


All this points out the tremendous challenges involved in developing policies and legal frameworks to govern use of the Internet. In the United States, laws to regulate broadcast media have been in place for decades.

With printed media, jurisdiction issues are straightforward, J. Beckwith “Becky? Burr, a partner at the Washington law firm Wilmer Hale, told the Washington File:  “We know when things are printed they are subject to whatever law is applicable in the place where they are printed, and you know where the material is being distributed.?

Burr, who chaired the task force on privatization of the Internet domain name system, said that neither factor necessarily applies to information “printed? on the Internet.

“The profound question is if I put in a URL [Uniform Resource Locator, an Internet address] and go to an Internet site on a server in the United States, and I read it at my desk in France, have I gone to the United States or has information been sent to me in France?  People have, over time, developed a general sense that you are going to the place where the server is located,? Burr said, “but that is not a philosophy that is universally shared.?

For example, German efforts to regulate neo-Nazi speech and pornography, which are protected by free speech laws in the United States, have led to the prosecution and extradition of non-Germans who “send? neo-Nazi material into Germany.

No international laws or treaties restrict Internet filtering to protect freedom of speech or freedom of association.  Palfrey said that although people have sought to apply human rights conventions to protect against Internet censorship around the world, this never has been implemented.  (See related article.)

For more information, see Freedom of the Press and Internet Freedom.

Created: 22 May 2006 Updated: 22 May 2006

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