Human rights and wrongs online
'Censorship' or 'protecting citizens'?
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.
The Western approach to Internet censorship
Let's face it, every country wants to restrict in some way what people see, do, and discuss - both online and offline. They all want to, in what they deem to be "appropriate" circumstances, intercept communications, listen in on conversations, and keep their citizens from using technologies to do "bad" things.
For example, the US State Department report on France incongruously and paradoxically notes that, "[t]here were no government restrictions on the internet" and then that, "a Paris court ordered French internet service providers to block the website of the revisionist Holocaust denying organisation, the Association of Former Connoisseurs of War and Holocaust Stories, to French users" but did not note the fact that the government also attempted to restrict access to Yahoo! sites that sell Nazi memorabilia in violation of French law.
Other "Western" countries have either passed, or threatened to pass legislation to restrict access to or use of the internet. Thus, the Australian Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act 1999, requires Austrialian ISPs to delete Australian hosted content from their server (web, Usenet, FTP, etc) that is deemed "objectionable" or "unsuitable for minors" on receipt of a take-down notice from the Australian Broadcasting Authority. In January and February 2002, civil authorities in the District of Düsseldorf (Bezirksregierung Düsseldorf) ordered 76 privately owned and school-based internet providers in of North Rhine-Westphalia to block access to two websites that contain Nazi propaganda, hate speech, and racist tracts.
The United States has many laws which restrict what people can see, do, read and discuss online. For example, the Child Online Protection Act law for which the government subpoenaed Google, criminally punished the commercial distribution of inappropriate materials online, and was a successor statute to the Communications Decency Act which did the same thing in a more restrictive manner.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (PDF) passed a law mandating that all such websites be blocked, and gave every district attorney in the State the power to order such blocking. A host of other US laws can be used to restrict or punish access to or distribution of web content, including anti-spam laws, anti-fraud laws, securities regulations, defamation laws, copyright and trademark laws, espionage and national security laws. These laws are used to both protect citizens from the content, prohibit the use of the technology to further other "bad" or unlawful actions, ensure good "moral" order and well being, as well as to protect the government itself from speech that might be considered inciteful (or insightful) or unlawful. It is altogether fitting and proper that we, like every other sovereign, should be able to do this.
U.S. Congressman Chris Cox introduced legislation called the Global Internet Freedom Act. The bill contains some revolutionary concepts which the US seeks to invoke on the rest of the world, but which have never actually been employed here in the United States. For example, the bill states flat out that, "all peoples have the right to communicate freely with others, and to have unrestricted access to news and information, including on the internet." By "communicate freely" I assume Congressman Cox means without consequence or fear of incarceration. But there has never been such a right here, nor such a right to unrestricted access to information. In the US, we have no right to access to obscenity or child pornography, although this material may be legal in other countries, and vast amounts of it are available online. Try downloading it here (even if you are a citizen of a country where it is legal, and are downloading it from a foreign server) and you could wind up in jail for 20 years. You can't use the internet to foment a revolution, to conspire to commit a crime, to advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence, to access information that the government has classified (or reclassified) as protected for national security or foreign relations purposes. We pass laws like the DMCA to give companies the ability to legally restrict access to video, music, or other copyrighted works, even when the copyright law itself permits such access and use, and then we throw people in jail for making fair uses of these works. Thus, we have never as a society advocated that all persons have the right to unrestricted access to all news and information, nor that they have a right to communicate freely.
The Cox legislation is aimed at defeating "internet jamming" by "repressive foreign governments." While the bill defines "internet jamming" as "jamming, censoring, blocking, monitoring, or restricting internet access and content by using technologies such as firewalls, filters, and 'black boxes'," it interestingly makes no effort to define what constitutes a repressive foreign government, and makes no effort to restrict blocking monitoring or restricting internet access and content by domestic governments. Indeed, most "internet jamming" is a positive and good thing. As a government we pass laws and help both develop and encourage technologies to restrict spam, block or attempt to block access to phishing sites, and sites that distribute spyware and viruses. Preventing "bad" content - or as the Cox legislation defines it, "jamming," is a legitimate role of government. Let's get off our high-horse and say what we really mean.
Good censorship vs. bad censorship
At its most basic level, everybody agrees that some content should either be censored, or if not censored, at least should be actionable. While you have no right to falsely shout fire in a crowded theater, blocking computer viruses is generally a good thing, whether done by the government or by the private sector. What we are really debating is the extension of US or Western values about what is appropriate or inappropriate to the rest of the world, and condemning the extension of foreign values to the West.
Although there are differences between censorship used to protect citizens and that used to protect governments (of course, so that they can do what is best for their citizens), in the final analysis, the distinction between the censorship of internet content in the United States, Germany and France and the censorship in China, Quatar and North Korea is that we do it for good reasons, and of course they do it for bad reasons.
We do it to keep smut from kids, encourage the commercial development and exploitation of intellectual property, protect our nation from insurrection and revolt, and to promote our values - good values. The funny thing about this argument (despite the fact that it is impossible to delineate) is that it is probably right. Repression of human rights is like obscenity. We cant always define it, but as a general rule we know it when we see it. So don't blame the technique (internet filtering and monitoring) when used for bad purposes. Routers don't kill people. People with routers do.
This article originally appeared in SecurityFocus.
Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus
Mark D Rasch, JD, is a former head of the Justice Department's computer crime unit, and now serves as senior vice president and chief security counsel at Solutionary Inc.