We’ve talked about censorship before. But the topic is a rich one, and we can periodically revisit it for fun and insights.
You may have heard that the U.K. government is drafting an interesting plan. To combat porn, the government (more specifically, Ed Vaizey, the communication minister) is going to ask all the major ISPs to essentially filter out porn sites by default, unless the subscriber specifically asks to have access to the forbidden sites. The rationale for this? Well, the government is convinced that porn causes problems, and is now a “health issue”. As a result, it feels that it can regulate it, just like cigarettes or drugs.
What’s interesting here is that this is a WATOC argument. The rationale for filtering the Internet is now to protect children from ‘accidentally’ seeing porn, which is apparently damaging to them in some way.
Censorship is not an all-or-nothing system, unlike what some people think. And, increasingly, it is the rule rather than the exception. Most people (well, non-Chinese people) know that China has built a complex system of feeds, firewalls, and screening software to make sure that its citizens do not ‘stumble upon’ sites that would be damaging to the Communist Party’s image. For example, searching for Tiananmen Square in China on Google used to give this error:
How does China enforce its Great Firewall? Well, one of the smartest manipulations is that the existence of the Firewall is itself censored. You can’t discuss the Firewall, talk about the way it works, or how to circumvent it – and if you do, you could get a knock on your door. As a result, most Chinese have no idea that their Internet access is censored (and, to be fair, there is some evidence that Chinese people actually don’t object to government censorship of their Internet, even if they know about it). It’s hard to object to something that you know little about, after all.
The UK uses a similar ‘stealth’ technique, but implemented very differently. If you’re reading this blog from the UK, for example, your traffic passes through an invisible filter called CleanFeed. Cleanfeed is invisible in that, most of the times, accessing a web page through Cleanfeed is perfectly invisible – it is a silent gateway beyond your ISP. if you go to a web-site that is ‘forbidden’, however, it returns a 404 error:
Nothing to see here. Move along.
Note the trick – it returns a 404 page not found error, not a “this site is blocked by your friendly government”. Since there is no censorship message, the user usually assumes that the page is simply offline. The manipulative nature of CleanFeed is precisely its invisibility – again, it’s hard to object to censorship that you cannot see.
And by the way, Cleanfeed is also active in Canada and Australia – if you’re visiting from there, you’re probably going through Cleanfeed right now! Say hi!
China and the UK are not alone, by the way. More and more countries are trying to ascertain some level of control on the Internet, and censorship and manipulation are an important component of that control. South Korea demands users post their unique government ID when posting online or searching for ‘forbidden terms’. The UAE blocks VoIP, all Israeli domains, and maintains a blacklist of domains. Reporters Without Borders has compiled the following visual map:
Reporters Without Borders Internet censorship ratings.
In most of the Western world, the impetus behind most of these controls is either the always-popular child pornography, or, increasingly, copyright law. France has passed laws that would track and eventually disconnect anyone who accesses or distributes copyrighted content (without trial). Italy censors the Pirate Bay, but not the thousands of similar torrent sites. Go ahead, Italian friends – click the link and see what happens! Even in the US, Homeland Security occasionally tampers with the Internet’s core ‘maps’, the DNS records, to seize control of sites that it deems copyright ‘thieves’. Amusingly, Russia does not seem to have censorship of any kind in place. Kind of ironic, if one remembers the Soviet regime.
What’s interesting, from our point of view, is to see how governments tend to expand the control of the Internet once they’ve established a beach-head based on child pornography or copyright laws.
The Chinese milk scandal is a good example. China’s Firewall will stop searches mostly on political issues, of course, and also… on many milk-related searches. Why? Because when Chinese milk was found to be heavily laden with melamine, hundreds of children were hospitalized and it was an international embarrassment to the party.
Well, it was if you could find it. For most Chinese, the incident never happened, since the Chinese Internet heavily censored the incident. Once a government has a tool that can censor the Internet, it’s very, very difficult to stop using it. That’s why China has censored milk, and the UK is thinking of censoring online porn in some way. South Korea started censoring sites that were sympathetic to North Korea, and then gradually expanded the ‘bad’ content to gambling sites, pornography, and even unrated games. Denmark started a standard child-pornography blacklist in 2005, and then gradually expanded the black list to cover torrent sites, and now song-download sites as well. Tunisia has been caught in a spiral where they started banning pornography, then documents critical of the government, then translation services and more…
Once a tool for censorship is in place, especially one that is manipulative, the urge to use it to expand the scope of control from things that are undeniably bad (child pornography) to ones that are disliked by the party in power.
Back home, in the US, generally, the Internet has been protected by the 1st amendment, but recently one site has changed the dynamic in a fundamental way.
Wikileaks (here – test your connection and connect!) has become, in a few years, arguably one of the most important sites on the Internet. For students of manipulation, it is invaluable – manipulation often comes to light after the fact, and more often than not it is leaked documents or whistle-blowers who bring the most interesting manipulations to light.
Wikileaks has been publishing leaks for several years now, but the last round of revelations, even though they were not particularly stunning, created enough embarrassment for our government that a number of manipulative measures were enacted very, very quickly:
– The US state department called Colombia University’s school of International and Public affairs to have them warn students that talking or discussing Wikileaks “would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.” Basically, discuss Wikileaks and you’re banned from a job with the Federal government.
– Senator Joseph Lieberman questioned Amazon on its relationship with Wikileaks (Wikileaks was hosted on Amazon’s servers). A day later, Amazon cut off the site from its servers.
– Paypal also came under some scrutiny for being the agent through which individuals could donate to Wikileaks. A few days after the Amazon move, Paypal froze its accounts, and refused to send it the money that had already been contributed to the site.
– Mastercard also decided, on its own or with some prodding, to cut off Wikileaks from donations from its members – you can’t use Mastercard to send donations to Wikileaks anymore. No one knows, for now, the pressure that was brought to bear on Paypal or Mastercard or Amazon to push them to cut off Wikileaks (unless Wikileaks publishes it), but the results were pretty impressive – in 5 days, a web site was cut off from hosting and financial lifeblood.
– Republican Representative Peter King accused Wikileaks of “treason”, which is harsh since neither Wikileaks nor its founder are American, hence are incapable of treason no matter what they do. Still, that didn’t stop a lot of talk radio and blogs and publications from picking up the title and running with it.
– Joe Biden announced that the State Department will try to find creative ways to prosecute Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder. He also branded him a “high-tech terrorist”.
What’s interesting about this is that nothing that Wikileaks has released is particularly damaging to the US. Most of it (at least thus far) has been embarrassing more than damaging – embarrassing stories about Afghanistan, about trying to prevent a governmental UK inquiry in the Iraq war, that sort of thing. Nothing particularly bad, adn some commentators have actually argued it puts us in a pretty good light. In general, though, the response has been negative, and the sheer range and creativity of the response, from legal attacks to pressure to PR blitz is probably without precedent.
As the Internet grows in scope and more and more people rely on it for their news, it should be interesting to see how different governments attempt to manipulate and control it for their own purposes. Stay tuned…