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Human rights and wrongs online

'Censorship' or 'protecting citizens'?

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A government's position on censorship used to protect its citizenry is dictated by who they are. The well-popularised censorship of internet content in China by Google and other big players, and criticism of this by the US government, is really just the tip of the iceberg.

On 15 Febrary, the United States Congress held hearings on the role of US internet companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco in suppressing free expression and therefore encouraging repressive tactics by countries like China. The hearings explored the role and the responsibility of these companies for deliberately filtering communications, assisting in the interception of citizen's communications, and using technology to restrict access by citizens to information.

At the same time, the US government was seeking broad information from these same companies about the aggregate browsing habits of ordinary Americans. It was attempting to enforce a criminal statute that would restrict access to constitutionally protected information by Americans, and was enlisting the support and assistance of telecommunications and internet providers in this extra-legal intercepting of communications of United States persons. And it didn't matter if the people are living within the United States or abroad.

The point here is not to demonstrate the obvious hypocrisy of these divergent positions on control and regulation of the internet. Rather, it is to show that a government's position on whether activity constitutes "censorship" or "protecting of the citizenry" is dictated by who they are. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once pointed out: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

The China syndrome

The Congressional hearings were focused on the activities of the government of China, aimed at restricting access by their citizens to a whole host of information that could help to foment a human rights revolution in that sovereign nation. In other words, the same technology that delivers internet content can also be used trivially to not deliver it or to retain records of what content is delivered and to whom.

The hearings looked at the role of US companies in assisting the Chinese and other "repressive" governments in limiting access to information. Google, for example, created a "neutered" search engine expressly for Chinese users (who retained access to the unrestricted website www.google.com) that would not search for (or more accurately deliver up results for) certain types of information when searched from inside China. Thus, a Chinese citizen would not be able to search successfully for something like "human rights violations in China" or "Tiananmen Square protests" for example. Google argued that they did not restrict content, but merely the ability to use a particular website to find that content, and that, by hosting their websites outside of China, they were protecting human rights by restricting inroads by potential state-owned ISPs.

In its 2005 report on human rights, the United States Department of State frequently observes that the monitoring of electronic communications and the restriction of access to information constitutes a sanctionable human rights violation. For example, its report on China notes that, "authorities monitored telephone conversations, facsimile transmissions, email, text messaging, and internet communications" and that, "The [Chinese] government continued to threaten, arrest, and imprison many individuals for exercising rights to free expression. Internet essayists and journalists in particular were targeted."

But China is not alone in this regard. Indeed, China may not even be among the most repressive of regimes. The State Department report on Burma noted that "the country's two internet service providers (ISPs), offer expensive, censored internet service to those who could afford it. After October 2004 the army signal corps and the Ministry of Communications, Post, and Telegraphs took control of the ISPs." The report on Iran criticised as a human right violation the fact that the, "state attempts to block access to 'immoral' internet sites" and that this included, "over 20 subject areas to be blocked, including: insulting Islam; insulting the supreme leader or making false accusations about officials; undermining national unity and solidarity; and propagating prostitution and drugs." The Saudi Arabian government, "blocked access to some internet sites, claiming that these restrictions bar access to pornography. However, the government also blocked access to sites with religious and political material that the government considered offensive or sensitive."

Other countries, including many US allies routinely do similar things. Egypt, according to the report, routinely monitors individual's internet traffic in violation of their own wiretap laws, Quatar has "censored the internet for religious, political, and pornographic content through a proxy server, which blocked websites containing certain key words and phrases" and our good ally, the United Arab Emirates uses its state owned ISP Etisalat to "block material regarded as pornographic, violent, morally offensive, or anti-governmental, as well as sites promoting radical Islamic ideologies, [which] in practice blocked broad categories of sites including many that did not meet the intended criteria, including www.newyorktimes.com and www.cnn.com. The Etisalat proxy server provided access to America Online email but blocked other features that enable users to chat online." In Kuwait, "the Ministry of Communications (MOC) began blocking websites considered to, "incite terrorism and instability." The government required internet service providers to block some political sites and webpages deemed immoral. Internet cafe owners were obligated to obtain the names and civil identification numbers of customers and to submit the information to the MOC upon request." In Morrocco, "authorities began blocking access to Internet sites advocating independence for the Western Sahara."

Other countries routinely restrict access to sites they don't like, or use either direct government ownership of Internet providers, regulation or commercial ISPs, or even indirect pressure on the ISPs to restrict access to information or communications they would prefer their residents not have access to. Thus, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa have all been reported to use either state or monopoly ownership of ISP's to restrict access to information sites.

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