Is internet censorship out of control?

Internet censorship is rife and seems to be getting worse. This month, Reporters Without Borders ran an article about bloggers and human rights activists in Bahrain who have been given life-sentences for expressing their opinions online. This year alone, the site reports that 121 ‘netizens’ have already been imprisoned around the world for reasons directly relating to their writing activities online.

The countries where this is most prevalent are China, Vietnam and Arab countries including Iran, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. As horrifying as it is, it would be wrong to say that the incredible sentences being imposed on bloggers are completely disproportionate to the crime. That’s because it is completely ridiculous to consider that expressing one’s opinions in public should even be considered a crime.

This month, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt spoke out at the Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) in Dublin, to say that while Google does not like to take a political stance it is clear that the ongoing Arab uprisings could lead to an upsurge in internet censorship. His main concern was that there is an increased risk of arrest for colleagues working in countries with restrictive policy. “There are countries where it is illegal to do things that Google encourages,” he said. “In those countries, there is a real possibility of (employees) being put in prison for reasons which are not their fault.”

Schmidt’s concerns are not unfounded. Google executive Wael Ghonim was detained and blindfolded for two weeks at the height of the protests in Cairo that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Many other activists said Ghonim had been involved in founding an activist anti-torture Facebook page that was an early rallying point for Egyptian protesters. During the uprising, Google also launched a service which allowed Egyptian protestors to dial a phone number and leave a voicemail message to post messages on Twitter, despite heavy internet regulation by the Egyptian government at the time.

While this helped Egyptians to circumvent attempts to censor their expression, it has also helped to fuel fire against Google in authoritarian states.

In January, Google clashed with China over human rights and censorship issues. Google claimed that hackers originating in China had attempted to gain access to the Gmail accounts of a number of human-rights activists. As a result, Google decided to break away from its agreement with the Chinese government to censor results returned by its Chinese language search engine. On Google’s official blog, they posted the statement “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks 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. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.”.

Meanwhile, China has been forging ahead to require its ‘Green Dam’ internet filtering software to be installed on every computer sold in China. This software is designed to automatically censor the sites that are accessible to Chinese consumers. This week, under pressure from its online community, the Chinese government has temporarily backed down on its launch date for the compulsory software. While the media is in a bit of a frenzy about this software, censorship of internet content is not restricted to authoritarian states like China, North Korea and Iran. The UK, France, Germany and South Korea all filter internet access, and the United States and Australia are moving toward the same approach.

During his speech at the Summit Against Violent Extremism, Eric Schmidt stated that governments are waking up to the fact that the internet has become as pervasive and as potent a force as television. He pointed out that in most authoritarian countries TV is highly regulated by officials. What he didn’t mention was that this doesn’t just apply to the typical authoritarian states which leap to mind.

Google’s Transparency Report shows that it has complied with 94 percent of the 4600 odd government requests for data about users of its services in the U.S. in the second half of 2010. Google complied with 72 percent of 1,162 requests made by the UK, and 76 percent of 1,804 requests from Brazil. In Japan, it had a 90 percent compliance rate for the 72 requests made by the government there. While it is laudable that Google attempts to offer transparency into its dealings with governments around the world, the information that is coming to light is chilling. The internet is rapidly becoming a dangerous place to freely express your opinion.

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