You probably know that internet censorship is a hot topic. It's on the rise around the world and has been a big issue here in Australia, where a new push for censorship remains government policy.

The internet is such a great enabler of free speech. Why do governments want to censor it?

Some of the motivation is understandable. With free speech comes troublesome speech. Even in a democracy such as Australia, most of society believes in limits to free speech. Where do you yourself draw the line? Even a staunch defender of civil liberties quickly runs into some thorny issues. Think about defamation, racial vilification, stalking, and of course child pornography. Do you support laws against false advertising? Against fraud - lying for financial gain? What about making a death threat - that's nothing more than a type of speech. So is publishing nude photos of you without your permission, or blogging the names and cover identities of Australian spies on active duties overseas.

All of these things can happen online. Should the change of medium make them exempt from government control?

Copyright is another reason we limit freedom of speech. That's a whole different issue (about which EFA has much more to say) but most people support some form of copyright, even if it's not as drastic as we see today.

Now, I believe that all of these issues can be managed, but put yourself in the shoes of one of today's politicians. It's no wonder even democratic governments are frightened by the idea, real or not, of a "wild west" internet.

Then there are the murkier motives. Some of it comes from public outrage. Some of it comes from a desire to enforce offline censorship mechanisms to the new medium. Perhaps they want to protect the public from material that (they believe) would be harmful to morality or the public order. And of course, the nastiest reason of all - clamping down criticism of the government and unpatriotic sentiment.

These are the pressures driving increased censorship around the world. They are diverse. Different governments around the world have responded in different ways to these pressures. Some are well-meaning; some are brutal and sinister.

What does it even mean to censor the internet? As a shortcut, let's talk about two types of censorship: Technical, whereby your web browser is somehow prevented in real-time from accessing forbidden content, and Legal, whereby material is outlawed but access is not prevented at a network level.

The current situation

The good news is that in many countries, the internet is still relatively uncensored. The USA, Japan and Spain, for instance, are basically free of technical censorship. No filters or blacklists prevent access to web sites, and no government packet sniffers log every action (so far as we know). Of course, all these countries have some form of legal censorship.

In some other countries, such as the UK, Norway or India, there's mild to moderate technical censorship. In Norway, for instance, ISPs voluntarily compile a list of child pornography web sites which they block by the means of DNS poisoning. In the UK, most net connections are subject to a "clean feed", that blocks web sites deemed to be child pornography by the Internet Watch Foundation.

Even in these countries the systems have proven controversial. In Norway, the blacklist was leaked and was shown to contain many sites composed of legal pornography only. The ISP involved, Telenor, has also come under heavy pressure, including a court case, to add The Pirate Bay to the blacklist. There, the ISPs have been threatened with a possible law if they don't continue to implement the scheme.

In the UK, the system is again voluntary, but the vast majority of ISPs comply. This system has proved problematic, such as when a Wikipedia page was added to the blacklist, causing all sorts of problems for British Wikipedia users.

Then there are the countries where internet censorship is severe and pervasive. Recently, Iran's censorship regime has gotten a lot of attention. The censorship is broad - from political dissent to "provocative attire" or material that would cause "anxiety", with criminal penalties for violation. This is enforced technically, with an increasingly sophisticated filtering system, backed up by brutal police.

Far from having an NBN, the speed of internet connections in Iran has actually been capped. This is supposed to discourage the download of potentially inappropriate materials from overseas.

The undisputed master of technical censorship is, of course, China. The Great Firewall - known in China as the "Golden Shield Project" - is legendary. I've spent some time in China, and from a technical point of view I was very impressed with what they have accomplished. A combination of technical excellence and legal ruthlessness make the censorship there very effective.

Technically, they use every trick in the book. DNS poisoning and IP blocking are common, but the Great Firewall also inspects all its traffic for inappropriate keywords. It detects the use of web proxies and blocks them in real time. Non-web protocols are censored; for instance, if a keyword is entered in an instant message, the connection will be dropped and the IP blocked for a certain time. It's very thorough.

Although the numbers are not public, it's estimated that some 30,000 people work on keeping the Golden Shield strong and shiny.

The technically inclined may have in mind a quote by John Gilmore that says "the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." Of course, this has a lot of truth to it. By the same token, the very well-resourced and sophisticated operation in China deals with most of the easy and cheap circumvention methods. It may be difficult to censor the internet, but from the point of view of the average user, it's far from impossible.

It's worth reiterating that in these countries, the technical censorship is combined with legal censorship that produces a "chilling effect". Website owners censor themselves for fear of repercussions. These are countries in which bloggers have been jailed and tortured, where website owners are responsible for the comments of their users. So even borderline material is quickly removed without the government having to intervene. Effectively, China has a billion censors.

I won't even mention North Korea, where censorship is so pervasive that they have no internet to speak of.

The situation in Australia

Australia's censorship, fortunately, can't be compared to a country like China. However, the situation in Australia is more dire than most people know. In fact, it's pretty defensible to state that Australia's internet is already among the most heavily censored in the world. The Howard government made a big push for internet censorship, and under the amendments to the BSA made in 1999, any material that is rated R-18+ or over is considered prohibited. Under some circumstances, even MA-15+ content can be prohibited.

If hosted in Australia, the host or provider can be subject to fines of $11,000 a day if they don't take down such material. That's a pretty serious penalty.

Actually, R-18+ content can be allowed - if you protect the website so only adults can view it. The mandated procedure is so onerous that to my knowledge nobody has done it. You have to collect id from the user and keep it on file for several years. In any case it would make it impossible to access the site anonymously, an important right.

If the material isn't hosted in Australia, the site gets added to a blacklist maintained by the media regulator, ACMA. All ISPs in the country are required to make available filters that block access to sites on this list.

Does this surprise you? It gets worse: In one instance, as part of an article discussing censorship, EFA linked to a "prohibited" web page about abortion. Somebody complained and our web host got a takedown notice. We had to censor the article. We actually disputed the decision on technical and free speech grounds at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, but lost.

The blacklist of prohibited sites leaked in March of 2009. It quickly became famous for the many harmless websites it contained, for instance a dentist, dog kennel and tuck-shop supply company. The minister blamed the Russian Mafia for hacking the websites. I blame the system for not informing the owners of the sites that they had been prohibited, and for not keeping the list up to date. Secrecy.

That's how things work today. This system would be draconian if not for the saving grace that it is pretty ineffective. First, the mechanism operates on complaints from the public. Secondly, it's easy to host material overseas and so avoid the takedown notice. And finally, very few people voluntarily install the government's filters to block access to the list.

If you've kept an eye on the news over the last few years you'll probably be aware that the government wants to take things a step further, by implementing mandatory ISP censorship.

They want to force every ISP in Australia to block websites that are on a secret government blacklist. The websites will be "refused classification", which means any content that doesn't fit into the existing categories such as R-18+ and X-18+. To hear the government talk about it, this is all nasty material like child pornography and bestiality. But it's much broader than that. It would include sites that provide "instruction in crime", like information on euthanasia, safe drug use, or even graffiti. It would even include computer games that are rated higher than MA-15+, which are banned for sale in Australia.

The numbers in parliament mean the government will have a hard time getting it passed. But we're still staring down the barrel of some significant technical censorship.

We're also seeing how poorly the old tool of classification works, or doesn't work, when applied to the internet. It's an understatement to say that we need to see a bit of a rethink on that one. A system designed for books and cinemas can't be shoehorned onto the net, no matter how hard you try.

The future

So where to from here? The current trends are not encouraging.

In a way, the internet is the victim of its own success. By making speech and communication easier, it makes organisation and protest easier. The better it does at this job, the greater the reaction. In authoritarian countries, the irresistible urge is to try and stuff the genie back in the bottle.

The technology of censorship is actually getting better and more sophisticated. What Iran and China are able to do now isn't perfect, but it's good enough. They don't care about crafty expats tunnelling through the Great Firewall using a commercial VPN service. They only care about stopping the vast majority of regular net users, for which purpose the current systems work very well indeed.

Even China is looking for ways to clamp down further. Last year, they ruled that every computer sold in China would have to have "Green Dam Youth Escort" software installed. Supposedly designed to shield young people from harmful material (sound familiar?), the software was so scary, that even typing a banned word such as "Falun Gong" would cause the program you were using to quit. Uninstalling it was nearly impossible. Only the fact that the software was so unstable, and the code for the program appeared to be stolen, caused the government to backtrack on this order.

When riots occurred in the western province of Xinjiang, the Chinese government took the step of just turning off the internet in that province for almost a year. They're that serious.

The latest push in China is one to destroy the anonymity of the internet, forcing users to register under their own names to even comment on an internet forum. Already you have to (officially) show ID at an internet cafe. The situation is similar in other countries, and not just Burma or Saudi Arabia. Even in democracies, lawmakers are wondering if there is some way to remove the cloak of anonymity. Somebody who should know better, security expert Eugene Kaspersky, called for an "internet passport", comparing it to a drivers license for the internet.

While I think technical censorship will increase, we mustn't underestimate the human factor. Using sheer manpower to beef up censorship schemes could increase, such as looking for trending topics, shifting circumvention tools, new web proxies. Putting severe legal penalties on accessing prohibited material is another non-technological way to get the job done.

The fight over copyright is also yet to peak. "Piracy" will become an increasing driver in pushes to censor the net and identify users. Wherever technical censorship is in place, the copyright lobby will be first in line to have their issues dealt with, pushing to have BitTorrent trackers and similar sides added to blacklists. When filtering isn't in place, they will push for legal or technical solutions of their own. The industry has not been shy, after all, in pushing for "three strikes" laws around the world.

I think we're also yet to see the peak of corporate censorship. Look at Apple's app store. German newspapers have to censor their front pages to get their apps in there. If any proprietary platform becomes popular, this becomes a significant worry next to government censorship.

So is the outlook all bad?

There are positive trends as well. While it may well be in their self-interest as a corporation, Google have been a visible and vocal proponent of an open internet. Their very public fight with China, which eventually saw them exit the Chinese market, highlighted the issue for the world to see.

Google have a very powerful friend in the U.S. government. In January this year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a landmark speech on internet freedom in which the U.S. put themselves firmly in the anti-censorship camp. She summed up the issue as a choice for the future of civilisation:

Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.

This support for internet freedom goes so far as to pledge support for the development of filter circumvention tools.

Meanwhile, in Finland, access to the internet has been enshrined as a basic human right. If, as I do, you believe that free access to information is a right, then this is almost a necessary consequence of such a right in the 21st century.

A further positive sign: The debate on internet censorship in Australia has been almost comically one-sided. Apart from a few small and misinformed Christian groups, the Government stands alone in its pushing for mandatory internet censorship. The independents don't want it, The Greens have opposed it from day one. Even the coalition, who've had their tilt at censorship in the past, won't back it. Internet users, the industry, academics and the media have slammed the scheme. Even child rights groups have spoken out against it. This is encouraging.

We can also hold out hope that Australia will one day have a bill of rights.

Worldwide, there will continue to be friction between those pushing for more censorship and those pushing for an open internet. It's not easy to predict which side (if indeed it's either) will win in the end, and when. The battle over net censorship is, after all, only one aspect of larger movements in the future of human civilisation.

I think it's safe to predict that in the near term we are going to see an increase in attempts to curb freedom of speech online. In those countries where freedom of speech is seen as a political or even existential threat by the government, technical censorship is going to become more ubiquitous, but it will be combined with legal attacks on anonymity. The requirement for registering web sites and web users will, I think, increase.

In democracies, the short-term trend will be the same, though less severe. For various reasons, governments will be loath to simply admit the internet is beyond their control. Political pressures, the illusion of easy wins against unpopular targets, and vested interests will ensure this is the case. We'll hear more of "protecting children" as an excuse.

Longer term, I think the outlook could well be better. For a start, generational change amongst leaders will usher in a younger breed who have a better understanding of the net and the advantages it brings. These leaders will take to heart the lessons learned the hard way by their predecessors.

The philosophical battle will ultimately decide the censorship issue. The open internet has its champions amongst governments, and amongst the peoples of the world. We must hope that ultimately their voice will prevail.

Why we need to fight for internet freedom

Either way it will be a tough fight. It's one we need to win.

Despite all of the complexities and loopholes, the right to free speech combined with the immediacy of the internet can transform a society. Look at Wikileaks; it's transforming the news and is the biggest recent development in bringing transparency to government. As citizens, we benefit from the extra scrutiny it provides. But what government wouldn't want to censor it?

To ensure that the good guys ultimately prevail will not be easy. Fighting for internet freedom, especially here in Australia, requires a nuanced understanding of what drives the politicians and law enforcement agencies in our country to push for it. We can be smart about how we tackle the issue. It involves promoting alternatives to allay their concerns while clearly explaining the difficulties in censorship. It involves shifting the discussion away from the nasties on the net and instead highlighting the positives.

In this country, I don't underestimate the power of the moral panic. We saw just this year a couple of Facebook pages were defaced in a pretty offensive manner. It won't surprise anyone reading this that there happen to be jerks on the internet, but it's apparently news to many people. Once this made the mainstream media, the immediate government response was to crack down on such unpleasantness. The idea of an "internet ombudsman" was floated. Their job would be to investigate complaints of offensive material online. This idea was even endorsed by the PM. It's completely preposterous, but it shows how one bad headline could undo years of work pushing for internet freedom. We have to be sensitive to this.

In Australia, we sometimes hear politicians say something like, "We censor books and movies. Why should the internet be any different?" If you stop and think about it, it's not a difficult question to answer. The internet is fundamentally different. It's not just an electric newspaper or a virtual newsagent. It's huge. It's dynamic. It's global. Most importantly, it's about ordinary people communicating.

When a book or a movie is censored, you're censoring a publisher or media company. They know how to navigate the classification system. They have lawyers to deal with that. And when a decision goes against them, it's public information. They can appeal.

On the internet, the authors and publishers of the content are you and I. Everybody who has ever done so much as comment on a blog is an author, publisher and worldwide distributor of content. Censoring the internet for the first time in Australia brings the burden of censorship down on the average citizen's everyday discourse. That's a fundamental shift.

Cory Doctorow said recently that the beauty of the internet is that it "levels the playing field". It makes getting together, finding like minded people and organising both cheap and fast. It's within the reach of ordinary citizens to start a powerful political movement. To some governments and organisations, this is a scary thing, and it's why we're in for a tough fight.

10 comments

  1. A well-written, articulate article about just some of the dangers of censoring a public forum.

    But one you have failed to consider here is the power of the Internet to bring fringe groups together. As a participant in the Autism Civil Rights struggle, I am both emboldened by the fact that I can talk to activists around the world as if I were in the room with them, and terrified. I am terrified because the celebrity and corporate morons who fund hate groups like Autism Speaks fund it to such an extent that they can afford to spend a hundred dollars for every one that those who want the autistic to be allowed to speak for themselves can. At minimum. What is to stop them from bribing the Australian government's censor arm to cut off any and all contact I have with my fellows in America, England, or even Russia, among other places? If filtering is not outlawed and declared unconstitutional, not a thing.

    Oh yeah, and one question, Conroy et al: Where were you morons when my first girlfriend was being sexually assaulted as a child? How effective are you going to tell me your censors were then?

    Comment by Dean on 21 September 2010 at 7:18 pm
  2. Whilst I could never support an internet filter for the reasons that you have described above, there is a problem with your use of the term 'free speech' that makes me uncomfortable. For example, you cannot seriously defend any form of copyright law as this is a restriction on speech. Which does beg the question: why use 'free' when you admit to wanting to keep a restriction? Moving further afield, would you also argue for repealing section 52 of the Trade Practices Act? I seriously doubt it.

    It becomes a question of honesty, eventually. Why would anyone happily label 'restricted' as 'free'?

    Comment by dikkii on 21 September 2010 at 7:36 pm
  3. Thanks Colin. That was an excellent post. Telling my friends who don't understand the debate to read this.

    Comment by jimboot on 22 September 2010 at 7:49 am
  4. Yes, a big thanks Colin for your article also. I'll also be passing on a link to this for others to read. I think we have a long road ahead, and while people like Senator Conroy are in office, it will continue to be a battle to get them to see sense and abandon these policies.

    Comment by Corey on 22 September 2010 at 10:45 am
  5. "Even a staunch defender of civil liberties quickly runs into some thorny issues." - IMO, not really, and your article clearly indicates why. The 'problems' (ie. troublesome and so-called harmful speech) that censorship (supposedly) resolves are dwarfed by those it creates.

    People need to drop their unrealistic expectations, there are always going to be problems, without or without excessive censorship regimes. Censorship is a terrible solution to the problems it claims to be remedying (and it's also pretty poor at the unstated goal of political oppression - for all of China's work, their barrier is easily surpassed by those it wishes to stymie the most), the better solution IMO is policing (for actual crime, not hurt feelings and moral panics) and education (so people don't flip out the minute they are exposed to ideas that aren't 100% in-line with their own).

    Comment by Stuart on 22 September 2010 at 11:15 am
  6. Arguments in favour of censorship can be defeated through the application of one simple principle: that a person should be able to do anything they like, in the privacy of their own home, so long as they do not harm any other person. As we know, viewing content received via the internet can not in any way harm another person. Therefore a person who views content received via the internet poses no threat of harm to any person, and as such, there is no reason to prevent them from doing what they are doing.

    The above argument is all that needs to be said.

    However, there is another point which is even more fundamental than the above, it is not a principle but an observation of nature: that a person cannot tell what another is thinking. Since a person cannot tell what another is thinking, it is impossible for a person to control another's thoughts. This is obvious enough, but what does it have to do with censorship? The point of censorship is nothing less than to control another's thoughts. We know this because, as I said in the first paragraph, viewing content received via the internet does not harm another person. The offense that advocates of censorship perceive is that a person viewing particular types of content think 'wrong' thoughts about that content. Advocates of censorship are motivated by eliminating the 'moral' wrong of viewing certain types of content that they do not approve of. The fact that they are trying to enforce their morals on other people is only part of it, and that part is irrelevant. The relevant fact of nature is to know that, even if you could stop every single person from viewing a certain type of content that is considered wrong, you could never, not in a million, billion years, prevent people from _thinking_ thoughts that are far 'worse', far greater in breach of your 'morals' than the content you have banned. This is because, as I observed, thoughts of other people cannot be controlled. Human imagination is boundless and no mortal law can ever circumscribe a man's imaginative powers.

    So let's accept that, although some people may come up with some truly shocking ideas, and they may even try to share those ideas with other people, imagination is a force of nature that we can never hope to contain. Instead of doing that, let's embrace imagination and try to create a better world for ourselves and the people we care about, and let's not get bogged down in trying to restrict other people's imagination.

    Comment by Alex on 22 September 2010 at 10:22 pm
  7. Internet censorship is indeed a "hot" topic - and so it should be. As internet access continues to increase across the world, it is a fundamental necessity that unfettered access to information is allowed.

    I agree completely with Stuart and would like to add that in this age of new technology, the people/organisations that either are using (or would like to use) censorship as a means of control need to re-evaluate their actions, because really all they achieve is to bury their own heads in the sand while the rest of the world looks on in pity at their blatant insecurity (and meanwhile bypasses their censorship attempts if they need to, using projects such as http://www.torproject.org)... reaching out to people, educating them on how to use the internet responsibly and encouraging them to be better netizens is the way forward.

    I've started a website that helps reduce the chances of internet search results being censored/tampered with. It's still in early times, so be gentle with me please. If you are interested to learn more, the link is on my twitter profile and I would love to hear people's opinions and/or ideas.

    Best Wishes,
    Nathan Staudt

    Comment by @nstaudt on 24 September 2010 at 8:14 pm
  8. Thanks for the article Colin. One thing has stood out for me - people being required to show ID when using public internet terminals. You note that this requirement is already de rigeur in some countries. A couple of months ago, I walked into Everywhere Internet, a web cafe on Broadway in Sydney, and noticed at the entrance there are large imposing signs telling customers they must register with full ID (driver's licence etc) before using their terminals. I haven't used a public internet kiosk for years, and was definitely shocked to see this here. Is this more widespread in Australia than we already know?

    Comment by Stella on 8 October 2010 at 5:54 pm
  9. Copyright is another reason we limit freedom of speech. That's a whole different issue (about which EFA has much more to say) but most people support some form of copyright, even if it's not as drastic as we see today.

    Isn't this a tautology? I mean, if free speech is limited, then isn't it "restricted" and not "free"? Pardon my cynicism, but only the completely dishonest or incompetent would attempt to sell restricted speech as free speech. I suggest that you reconsider your position.

    Comment by dikkii on 9 October 2010 at 9:04 pm
  10. Thanks Colin, I enjoy reading your post. I hope you could write another informative post like this. Keep it up!

    Cheers,
    Pennsylvania Cable Deals

    Comment by CableDeals on 30 November 2010 at 10:38 am