One difference is that national borders are more permeable online: residents of a country that bans certain information can find it on websites hosted outside the country. A government can try to prevent its citizens from viewing these even if it has no control over the websites themselves. Filtering can be based on a blacklist or be dynamic. In the case of a blacklist, that list is usually not published. The list may be produced manually or automatically.
Barring total control over Internet-connected computers, such as in North Korea, total censorship of information on the Internet is very difficult (or impossible) to achieve due to the underlying distributed technology of the Internet. Pseudonymity and data havens (such as Freenet) allow unconditional free speech, as the technology guarantees that material cannot be removed and the author of any information is impossible to link to a physical identity or organization.
In some cases, Internet censorship may involve deceit. In such cases the censoring authority may block content while leading the public to believe that censorship has not been applied. This may be done by having the ISP provide a fake “Not Found” error message upon the request of an Internet page that is actually found but blocked (see 404 error for details).
In November 2007, “Father of the Internet” Vint Cerf stated that he sees control of the Internet failing due to private ownership.] Many Internet experts use the term “splinternet” to describe some of the effects of national firewalls. The verb “rivercrab” colloquially refers to censorship of the Internet, particularly in Asia.
Australian ISPs ‘aim to curb child sexual abuse’
In Australia, after several failed attempts by the government to introduce a mandatory filtering scheme, several Australian ISPs have taken matters into their own hands, blocking access to a list of 500 sites.
The ISPs will base their blacklists on a list maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), as well as – according to News.com.au – “child abuse URLs that are provided by reputable international organisations”.
In 2009, a copy of the ACMA’s blacklist was published by WikiLeaks, and was found to include the website of a Queensland-based dentist, a handful of Christian sites, and some YouTube videos - as well as adult sites deemed to be legal in Australia.
Such errors raise questions amongst free expression advocates about the lack of transparency in the process of determining which sites will be banned. There is also concern that there appears to be no appeals process by which to challenge sites banned by the ISPs.
Tunisia blocked pornography by court order
For years, Tunisia stood along with China and Iran as one of the world’s most strict online censors. Following the January 2011 popular revolt, however, internet filtering became obsolete for a time.
Shortly thereafter, a military tribunal moved to block a handful of sites, including all personal Facebook profiles or pages.
The latest measure to block sites in Tunisia comes after a group of conservative lawyers filed a legal case to “impose the blocking of pornographic content”. The Tunisian Internet Agency at first refused to implement the order and sought a stay of the ruling, but on June 13, the motion was denied and the Agency was forced to comply with the order.
The decision was met with derision by many Tunisians, some of whom protested on the grounds of personal freedom or concern that filtering any type of content would open the doors to further censorship; while others felt that the debate distracted from more important issues in the fledgling democracy. Still, some others were in support of the ban.
Turkey’s four-pronged approach
Turkey’s proposed filtering scheme has raised ire across the country, with citizens marching in the streets against censorship.
Though the scheme is meant to offer four opt-in layers of filtering – from “standard” to “children” – Turkish citizens realise they have plenty to lose. After all, the government has blocked YouTube and WordPress, among various other sites, for containing content deemed insulting to “Turkishness”.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Law on the Internet #5651 allows any party to petition a court to block content for a range of reasons – including alleged defamation. Some Turkish analysts believe that the law is easily abused.
Furthermore, a 2009 report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe highlighted that 80 per cent of Turkey’s banned sites had been blocked at the behest of administrative decisions, rather than court rulings.
Though the new system’s “standard” option will come without new filtering, there is no word as to whether already-blocked sites will remain banned.
Filtering is futile
While filtering – when conducted in the home or other private space – can be a good thing, such as preventing children from inadvertently accessing obscene or other undesirable content, government-level filtering does more harm than good.
Not only is it probable – and quite common – for “benign” sites to get caught up in content filters, blocking a certain type of content does not necessarily mean that such content ceases to exist; and in the case of child pornography, blocking may simply force such content “underground”, to peer to peer and other private networks where perpetrators are more difficult to catch.
Filtering at the government or ISP level is costly, yet can be easily circumvented with minimal tech savvy, using widely available proxy tools.
Most problematically, setting a precedent of blocking websites simply makes it that much easier for a government or ISP to extend filtering as they wish.
While few might object to blocking child pornography, what happens when the filters go after politically sensitive content? Will anyone object then?
- Telstra, Optus expand filter list (go.theregister.com)
- This Week in Internet Censorship (censorshipinamerica.com)
- ISP-Imposed Censorship Coming to Australia Next Month (censorshipinamerica.com)
- More Internet Censorship in Great Britian (pdark.de)
- Australian ISPs to voluntarily filter net, nervous about hack reprisals (digitaltrends.com)