Censoring the Internet

In March 2010, web giant Google made good on its promise to disobey the Chinese government’s insistence that search engines omit sites it considers politically unacceptable.

Visitors from mainland China are now directed to the uncensored version of Google’s Chinese-language search engine, which is hosted in Hong Kong.

The clash between Google and China has been imbued with ideological overtones. The Internet, a quintessentially American invention, represents freedom of individual expression, and China’s censorship of it seems to Western eyes the very embodiment of the communist nation’s political wrongdoing.

There have, however, been recent moves towards Internet censorship in countries that are generally considered to be on the liberal side of Beijing. In Australia, for example, the government has proposed a law enforcing “mandatory ISP-level filtering” of web content.

The proposed filter is ostensibly designed to protect minors from obscene material online, but it has raised concerns that it might be used to impose restrictions on free speech.

“What we have in the government’s Internet filtering proposals is a scheme that is likely to be unworkable in practice,” said Australian opposition treasury spokesperson Joe Hockey. “But more perniciously, it is a scheme that will create the infrastructure for government censorship on a broader scale.”

Google spoke up against the proposed Australian law. “Some limits, like child pornography, are obvious. No Australian wants that to be available and we agree,” the company wrote in a statement submitted to the Australian government. “But moving to a mandatory ISP-level filtering regime with a scope that goes well beyond such material is heavy-handed and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.”

In the UK, screening for child pornography is handled by Internet Watch Foundation, a non-profit organisation supported by Internet service providers.

But a clause in the controversial Digital Economy Act, passed by MPs in March and given Royal Assent in April, could also theoretically lead to more politically motivated sponsorship in future.

Not only does the bill allow the government to block “a location on the Internet…used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright” but it also makes provision for authorities to restrict public access to websites based on “any issues of national security raised by the Secretary of State”.

For such a taboo subject as Internet censorship this clause, and the bill in general, raised surprisingly little debate. The Liberal Democrats did raise some objections but when it came to the final vote, only one Lib Dem MP turned up.

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is the editor for Information Age. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and cyber security.

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