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Internet censorship and mission creep

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CFP 2008 "The internet perceives censorship as damage," John Gilmore famously observed, "and routes around it."

That might have been right in the early 1990s. In 2008, the state of internet freedom is looking a little rockier. Karen Karlekar, presenting Freedom House's survey of the state of internet freedom at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference this week, showed that repressing the internet is something many governments spend real money on.

From two in 2002, the number of governments filtering the net has risen to two dozen, according to Rob Faris, research director at the Berkman Center at Harvard and part of the OpenNet Initiative. Faris's maps show that social filtering – pornography, gambling – is far more widespread than political filtering, but that the overlapping diagram of who filters what shows a lot of "mission creep".

But one man's net freedom is another woman's harassment. Ann Bartow, author of the feminist lawyers blog, and Danielle Citron told hair-raising stories of the online version of real-world harassment. Female bloggers writing on women's issues have, for example, been targeted by anonymous groups seeking to effectively run them out of town – their real towns as well as their online ones.

The standard old net answer is social norms: peer pressure forces people to behave. But nothing protects an online space from being invaded by another group with different standards. Besides, said Bartow: "A lot of the stuff in cyberspace is just a reflection of what happens in real space."

Even worse, monitoring software helps abusers stalk victims of domestic violence and those who would help them. It is hard to think of the net as free if your violent ex-spouse is sending you bits copied and pasted out of the email you've exchanged with your lawyer.

Much public policy is made on the assumption that online kids are victims and adults are predators. But, said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Research Center, adult abuse is rare; kids cyberbullying each other is endemic, and schools have no idea what to do about it. One or more kids attack another kid, film the fight, and put it on YouTube ("grappling"), sometimes with adult encouragement. Provoke someone – a teacher or another kid – record it surreptitiously on your mobile phone, and put it up on YouTube ("YouTubeing"). Photoshop composite images; distribute. Blackmail on social networks, harass by instant messaging. Englander's surveys of 18-year-olds show that half have been cyberbullied – and 22 percent admit to having done it. A UK study shows that kids only tell their parents six percent of the time.

No one at CFP would suggest that the answer to those is greater regulation of the internet; the more common reaction is that law enforcement should take protecting the targets of these actions more seriously. Bartow, for example, favours creating cyberspace equivalents of protection orders.

But, said Richard Winfield, chair of the World Press Freedom Committee, beware of China, which seeks to depose ICANN and remake the internet in its own image. ®

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