Censorship's Big Comeback

This post originally appeared on Lady Jayne’s Blog

So, you want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the bleeping truth? Not only has this administration put government surveillance back on the map, and in ways that would make J. Edgar Hoover proud, but it has also engaged in the kind of censorship of scientific, and military, documents that would raise an eyebrow or two even at the Kremlin. And, burgeoning governmental intrusion poses a far graver threat to Internet safety than any garden variety computer virus ever could.

Among the more controversial issues former Vice President Al Gore mentioned last night on Larry King Live was this administration's unprecedented proclivity for blacking out parts of scientific reports on global warming, and anything else it considers "inconvenient." A study recently conducted by Oxford and Harvard, released last week, reports that fully two-thirds of the countries surveyed block or edit Internet social, and political posts.

While the nations surveyed include the usual suspects like China, Iran, and Korea, so-called "social filtering" is said to be happening in France and Germany where Web sites that deny the Holocaust are blocked. Whether we agree that Nazis and Holocaust deniers are not a desirable bunch, giving any government the right to decide what we see, and what we say, online may portend a dangerous trend. As John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, suggests"The survey shows us that online censorship is growing around the world." (Agence France Presse) Coming soon to a Web site near you?

Already in China, Internet censors not only block Web pages, but entire Web sites based on what they perceive to be threats to national security. Companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google, as well as media moguls like Rupert Murdoch are giving the green light to filtering, and deleting content which may be objectionable to the Chinese party line. Indeed, corporate profits make strange bedfellows.

But, more importantly, this kind of zeal for protecting national security isn't peculiar to the Chinese alone. As attorney-general-gate is quickly revealing, there may be many, thousands of miles from Beiing, on Pennsylvania Avenue, who want to reserve a front row seat, whether warranted or unwarranted, and check in with those sites that present a "dissident" view of government. And, after all, how does one distinguish between filtering and intelligence interception?

While some countries like Ethiopia and Pakistan are disabling blogging by blocking entire domains, others like China and Iran are only monitoring those Web sites they consider to be extremists, and/or those of political dissidents. While few would argue that some regulation of the Internet was inevitable, who can refute the ubiquitous threat to civil liberties posed by pervasive online censorship?

It's important to keep in mind, too, that the U.S. and most of Europe were not among those surveyed, and the folks at Oxford expect to find more nations that participate in the insidious practice of Internet snooping and blocking. The World Wide Web is, relatively speaking, in its infancy, and this is the first major study of its kind. Consider this in the context of what Al Gore, and others, report as censorship of scientific reports.

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