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May 24, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Illegal flower tributes

Internet censorship in the 21st century

On 13 January this year, a group of Chinese internet users converged on Google’s Beijing headquarters bearing flowers and candles. Google had announced the day before that it would no longer comply with Chinese internet censorship laws—a decision which, the group suspected, would result in a ban on the popular search engine. Upon reaching Google headquarters, however, they were informed by a neighbourhood security guard that they would need to apply for a permit before laying their flowers on the company plaque. If they did not, they would be committing an “illegal flower tribute”, and would be liable for persecution.

Illegal flower tribute. Put together, those three words seem about as much of an oxymoron as “Microsoft Works”. Yet they also happen to epitomise the very same logic that is used to justify internet censorship. The act of censorship is defined as the examination of an information medium “for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds”. When a government takes on this responsibility, it is effectively deciding what information should or should not be made available to its citizens. This is an immense power to wield and, to quote Superman, it can have a devastating effect when placed in the wrong hands.

So how does internet censorship affect people? How has internet censorship been employed by governments, and how have those affected managed to get around it? Is there an acceptable form of internet censorship? This article will address these questions by looking at three recent examples—Google China and Operation Aurora, the 2009 anti-government protests in Iran, and the Great Firewall of Australia.

China: Flower Tributes and Cyber Attacks

Google China has a controversial history. When it was founded in 2005, it announced that it would comply with China’s existing laws on internet censorship. It later justified this position by arguing that “while removing search results is inconsistent with Google’s mission, providing no information … is more inconsistent with our mission”. The fact that Google would come to hold 29 per cent of the search engine market share in China may also have influenced their decision.

The extent of internet censorship in China is substantial. “The Chinese government has undertaken to limit access to any content that might potentially undermine the state’s control or social stability,” writes the OpenNet Initiative.

“[It does so] by pursuing strict supervision of domestic media, delegated liability for online content providers, and increasingly, a propaganda approach to online debate and discussion.”

The Chinese government, according to OpenNet, censors anything that is considered to be “endangering national security and contradicting officially accepted political theory, conducting activities in the name of an illegal civil organization, or inciting illegal assemblies or gatherings that disturb social order”.

The type of material that is censored varies from the potentially subversive (such as searches on Tianamen Square, Falun Gong or the Dalai Lama) to the potentially offensive (such as criticisms of national leaders, distortions of Chinese culture, and material that is “sexually suggestive or provocative”).

Google China received heavy criticism for its policy of compliance with such strict censorship laws—collectively titled the ‘Golden Shield Project’—for so long. Therefore, it came as a shock when, in January 2010, Google suddenly announced that it was “no longer willing to continue censoring [their] results”.

“We will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all,” the announcement continued.

“We recognise that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”

Even more surprising was what had led to the change of heart. “In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.”

Google believed that “a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists”.

Operation Aurora, as the attack came to be named, had not only been directed at Google. It had begun as early as the middle of 2009, and had been directed at dozens of major companies around the world. Along with search engines, Aurora appeared to have targeted aeronautical firms like Northrop Grumman and antivirus developers like Symantec. McAfee concluded that the operation had been intended to steal “highly valuable intellectual property from its victims”.

So what does this extreme bout of cyberspace fisticuffs have to do with censorship in China? “Censorship, such as the blocking of websites, is fairly crude but effective when combined with targeted surveillance and attacks,” explains Nart Villeneuve, senior fellow at the Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies University of Toronto.

“The objective is to influence behaviour toward self-censorship, so that most will not actively seek out banned information of the means to bypass controls and access it.

“[This] nexus of censorship, surveillance and malware attacks … is the key to China’s information control policies.”

Iran: Social Networking and the Green Revolution

When the results of the June 2009 Presidential election in Iran were announced, many Iranians expressed disbelief. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, conservative fundamentalist and political firebrand, had been re-elected in a landslide, gathering almost twice the number of votes as his closest opponent, Mir-Houssein Mousavi. Almost immediately, supporters of Mousavi took to the streets, alleging widespread fraud and vote-rigging. This initial demonstration would escalate into a widespread protest movement called the ‘Green Revolution’, named after the colour adopted by protestors from Mousavi’s campaign.

The internet played a crucial role in the unrest. All internet service providers in Iran must go through a single government-managed gateway, providing the government with a single point of access for monitoring and filtering internet usage. This allowed the government to block access to all major foreign news outlets during and after the elections, as well as the websites of several opposition parties.

“The Internet censorship system in Iran is one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated in the world,” states OpenNet. “[It is] rooted in its constitution, which declares that ‘the media … must strictly refrain from diffusion and propagation of destructive and anti-Islamic practices’.”

“Efforts to control online speech by the Iranian government have relied primarily on large-scale internet filtering and the threat of targeted legal action,” continues OpenNet, adding that the government has a strong focus on developing its own web monitoring tools in order to reduce its dependency on Western software.

Despite the Iranian government’s attempts at censorship, the protestors made extensive use of social networking tools to get information out to the world. “Any democratic movement in a totalitarian state needs as much international support as it can get,” states Homy Lafayette, author of a blog titled ‘Iran News in English’.

“Hence, the choice of language I use for my blog. I want to influence, in my own humble way, international public opinion.”

Blogging in English became one of the most popular ways for Iranian protestors to bypass internet censorship due to the fact that censors targeted blogs written in Farsi. “I blogged for years at my Farsi weblog,” writes Jadi, author of ‘Inside Iran’, “but these days I’m filtered in my own country so I have to write here in English.”

Video sharing websites such as YouTube allowed for the direct uploading of amateur footage from the protests. The video showing the shooting of a protestor named Neda Agha-Soltan was later termed “the most widely witnessed death in human history”.

Twitter and Facebook proved invaluable for organising protests and disseminating information within Iran, with the former even postponing a scheduled network upgrade during the protests so as not to disrupt its service. “We have no national press coverage in Iran,” tweeted mousavi1388 during the protests, “[so] everyone should help spread Moussavi’s message. One Person = One Broadcaster.”

“Part of the efforts of those who oppose the regime is concentrated on overcoming state propaganda,” agreed Lafayette.

“It is ironic that someone in London is usually better-informed of what is truly occurring in Tehran, than someone in Shiraz.”

Lafayette indicates, however, that attempts to bypass internet censorship were merely part of an overall campaign by protestors to bypass government crackdowns. “In the first days of the post-election unrest, for example, I would argue that SMS messages were much more effective than websites,” he says.

“CDs and DVDs containing video files showing the regime’s brutality have been distributed around the country to people who do not necessarily have broadband or Internet know-how. In some rare cases, I know that important statements and speeches have been photocopied and distributed hand-to-hand on good old paper.”

Lafayette asserts that these methods “not only convey information, but also set the tone and maintain resistance.”

Australia: Where the bloody hell are ya, internet?

The debate over internet censorship in Australia had never been a particularly vocal one before December 2009. Up until then, censorship laws were comprised of a smorgasbord of state- and federal-level legislation aimed mostly at preventing unsuitable material from being made available to minors.

On 15 December 2009, however, the incumbent Labor government introduced a new piece of federal legislation titled ‘Measures to improve safety of the internet for families’. This legislation proposed to introduce, for the first time, a set of mandatory internet filters for all Internet Service Providers. The subsequent furore over the proposal led to it being dubbed the ‘Great Firewall of Australia’.

So what does the legislation propose, exactly? In the media release for the legislation, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy stated that it was intended to block “child sex abuse content, bestiality, sexual violence including rape, and the detailed instruction of crime or drug use”, as well as subject matter related to terrorism. This material, collectively referred to as Refused Classification (RC) content, is “already illegal to distribute, sell or make available for hire … [in] films, computer games and publications.”

Upon first glance, Conroy’s proposal might seem fair—a measure aimed at applying the same standard to the internet that is applied to other communication media. However, the legislation has evoked intense opposition from both the public and from private organisations. “This plan will … waste millions of taxpayers’ funds in a bid to enforce a level of censorship that will set human rights in Australia back several decades,” argues the Digital Liberty Coalition (DLC).

“[It] will impact legal as well as illegal material.”

The DLC concern over the impact the legislation will have on legal material seemed to be confirmed by a leaked copy of the Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist of Refused Classification sites. Among other innocuous websites, the list included the URL of a Queensland dentist, a tuckshop convener and a kennel operator.

“506 sites would be classified R18+ and X18+, which is legal to view in Australia but would be blocked for everyone under Labor’s mandatory censorship scheme,” wrote The Age.

Critics have also pointed out the lack of transparency in both the creation and ongoing maintenance of the blacklist. “This scheme was implemented without public consultation,” argues the DLC. “Even the advisory board for this scheme is closed-door and by invitation only … All minutes of meetings and information as to goings-on within this advisory panel have thus far been kept out of the eye of the public.”

Anti-censorship campaign group GetUp agrees. “Under the plan, the government can add any ‘unwanted’ site to a secret blacklist.”

They add that testing of internet filters demonstrates that they “will slow our internet by up to 87 per cent, make it more expensive, miss the vast majority of inappropriate content and accidentally block up to 1 in 12 legitimate sites.”

To censor or not to censor

When it comes to the examples of China and Iran, the case is fairly clear-cut—when you are suppressing domestic criticism and preventing the flow of news in and out of your own country, it’s a pretty fair bet to say you are abusing your power. But is there an acceptable level of internet censorship that can be agreed upon? The concept of ‘net neutrality’, which runs deep in most Western countries, would suggest otherwise.

The ‘Great Firewall of Australia’ presents an interesting case. On the one hand, the Labor government’s desire to prevent children from being exposed to material that almost everyone would consider offensive—child pornography, racism, bestiality and sexual violence—would seem to be a logical, even noble one. On the other hand, the mechanisms by which they are pursuing this goal—mandatory censorship, secret blacklists, inability to distinguish between what should and should not be blocked, and unproven technology that affects internet speed—are questionable, to say the least.

But if the idea of internet censorship is to be seriously called into question, should it not also logically extend to other forms of censorship? If it is considered unacceptable to sell Refused Classification material in movie or video game form, should it not also be unacceptable on the internet? Or, as the ‘net neutrality’ argument goes, is the internet a special case where the free flow of information—however corrupt and perverse at times—should not be interfered with? Alternatively, do ALL forms of censorship strip citizens of their personal liberties, as the libertarian argument goes? Does stripping individuals of the right to figure out for themselves what is and is not questionable material make them less well-rounded human beings?

At the very least, we should all be thankful that we live in a country where we can have these debates without being in danger of persecution. Nobody should ever have to fear reprisal for making an ‘illegal flower tribute’.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Kerry says:

    Matthew –

    good article, well researched.

    I hope you’ve submitted on the Search and Surveillance Bill, then, or else the freedoms you laud in your final paragraph may cease to exist without so much as a murmer.

  2. I like to read articles which are containing good and informative content. I was touched and encouraged to see this reaction from the Chinese people themselves to the principled action of Google. How about Yahoo, which was actively deinvolved in the arrest of some dissidents not that long ago.

  3. E says:

    He’s baaaaaaaaaack…

  4. Alpha says:

    Hahahaha win.

    The trolls are back in town, the trolls are back in town!

  5. tuscan says:

    i love the add im so going ;)

  6. . says:

    the trolls are baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack !

  7. chinaaaaaaaaaaaa says:

    hi

  8. TEHE says:

    its getting sticky sticky, you beat my drum HARD

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