Internet Censorship: Is It Possible? How soon? – In Depth Report
By John Jalsevac
“The days are now numbered for surfing an uncensored, open-access Internet, using your favorite search engine to search a bottomless cyber-sea of information in the grandest democratic forum ever conceived by humankind. Instead you can look forward to Googling about on a walled-off, carefully selected corpus of government propaganda and sanitized information “safe” for public consumption. Indoctrinated and sealed off from the outer world, you will inhabit a matrix where every ounce of creative, independent thinking that challenges government policies and values will be squelched.”
– Eliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
The Great Firewall of China
In May of this year Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, published an article in the Toronto Star. Entitled “Face to Face with the Great Firewall of China,” it related Geist’s troubling experiences while surfing the internet during a recent trip to communist China. (http://www.michaelgeist.ca/resc/html_bkup/may22005…)
Besides being unable to download his own e-mail from a Canadian-based mail server, Geist complained that he was blocked from such commonplace Western information resources as Google News and BBC, not to mention the Google search engine itself. “Searches for articles on circumventing the Chinese filters yielded a long list of results, none of which could be opened. Moreover, inputting politically sensitive words such as the ‘Falun Gong’ cut me off from the search engines completely.”
This isn’t new news, but it is good to be reminded that the world at large does not enjoy the same degree of freedom that much of the Western world does. A fascinating Harvard study conducted during 2002 found that of the slightly more than 200,000 websites researchers tried to access through Chinese Internet Service Providers (ISPs), over 50,000 were blocked either by government installed filters or by the team of internet monitoring personnel the communist government employs for that purpose. (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/china/)
In a world increasingly dependant on what many North Americans naively believe is and will always remain the last bastion of unfettered free speech Geist’s testimony comes as a cold shock. As he himself relates, the words of John Gilmore, co-founder of the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” are no longer as valid as they once seemed to be.
China’s largely successful bid to forbid their citizens’ accessing a significant cross-section of what they have determined is politically and morally inflammatory material deals a devastating blow to the long-held contention that comprehensive censoring of the internet is impossible. Numerous middle-eastern countries have also successfully employed similar, but generally less sophisticated means of filtering internet content.
Geist concludes with a sobering reflection, that “it would be a mistake…to think that the Canadian Internet will always remain just as free as China’s is censored.”
The Problems and Complexities of Internet Censorship
Past statements by technical pseudo-prophets, that internet censorship is essentially technologically impossible can, in light of emerging knowledge about the sophistication of China’s great firewall, be taken as somewhere on this side of naive.
Wherever there are humans there is the power of human ingenuity; and wherever men can control the flow of information to suit their purposes, it is a good bet that they will come up with ever more ingenious methods of doing exactly that. If digital Alexander-the-Greats have learned how to hack through the Gordian-knots of the algorithms of Pentagon security features (and they have), they will also manage to invent ever more subtle means of censoring and controlling the content of the net, as available to the masses.
The issue, however, remains one of the most nuanced and vital topics facing this age and is one that undergoes constant review in the courtroom and the boardroom, with no sign of emerging consensus amongst interested groups, after over a decade of debate.
The internet is the creation of men that can perhaps be said to most closely resemble the truly “organic”—flourishing, growing and adapting to changing circumstances with an adeptness seemingly rivaling any organic species—and therefore remains as elusive an entity as ever before. “It is no exaggeration” said one study looking into the problem of the internet, “to conclude that the content of the Internet is as diverse as human thought.”
Libertarian, Leftist Obfuscation
A little research into the matter reveals that the most commonly held position in this debate is the libertarian view—that of complete and unrestricted digital freedom.
This view is held with good reason. At this juncture in Western history, when the traditional mainstream media is poisoned by various scarcely hidden agendas, and informational services are increasingly linked through questionable financial and political relationships with governmental authorities and corporate powers, many computer-savvy Western users have come to treasure the unfettered freedom and access to information of the World Wide Web as a blessing from above.
The most immediate example of exactly this phenomenon in action is the existence and influence of LifeSiteNews.com. Even as short a time ago as the mid 90s it would have been impossible for a pro-life/pro-family and culture news source such as this one to disseminate the type of information that LifeSite does to such a broad audience and at such minimal cost. Without printing or mailing costs it has become possible to circumvent the left-wing filters of the mainstream media with spectacular results, and all with the click of a button.
But as conservative forces are painfully aware, along with the good comes the bad. All-pervasive, intrusive, and easy-to-access “hard-core” pornography is the great scourge of the internet age, and should not be underestimated. For the first time in history, thanks to the inherent freedom of the internet in its current form, sexually explicit material is available to anyone of any age with practically no effort. The true scope of the spiritual and social devastation wrought by this plague may not come to the surface for years to come. But many on the right have asked the question burning on the minds of many, “is it worth it?” And, “is there any way to stop it without risking restricting the valuable freedom of speech afforded by the internet?”
Such questions, however, immediately alienate us from our left-leaning opponents, who have erroneously attached an intrinsic stigma to the word ‘censorship’, and who have no patience at all for any consideration of restricting online content.
The most frustrating part of pursuing debate about internet censorship, as with most other contentious issues, is the left’s general lack of concrete principles to appeal to. Many of the arguments of left-wing civil liberties groups on the matter are exceedingly difficult to follow. One group will agree that some minor restrictions on pornography and violent material should exist, while another will say that even such negligible restrictions violate their deified “freedom of speech”, and all without apparent rhyme or reason. Many will argue for some restrictions of pornography, while admitting that they don’t believe pornography to be harmful in the least.
The loss of the basic set of natural-law based principles which at one point in history were common to all Western, Judeo-Christian based societies has made intelligent debate on the issue practically impossible.
The one constant of the left, however, is their vilification of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) that was temporarily passed in 1996, marking the first successful attempt at some form of legalized internet content control in the United States. The CDA, which “prohibited posting ‘indecent’ or ‘patently offensive’ materials in a public forum on the Internet — including web pages, newsgroups, chat rooms, or online discussion lists” was later deemed unconstitutional, and repealed in 1997, to the relief of leftist civil-rights groups.
“Although well intentioned, the CDA was ineffective and failed to recognize the unique nature of this global, decentralized medium” alleges a report published by the leftist Center For Democracy And Technology (CDT). And that may very well be true.
The Purpose of This Article
The purpose of this article is not specifically to discuss these matters. This writer takes for granted that no matter how one looks at it, the pornography available on the internet, which is shamelessly hawked to the unsuspecting or the vulnerable with the sordid persistence of the multi-billion dollar industry, does not even pretend to have “artistic merit”, nor does it pretend to be saying anything except that which is patently and profoundly destructive to our age and most especially its greatest asset, the youth. There is no gray area to appeal to for “tolerance”.
What this article intends is to give an overview of different viewpoints on the issue. It is also intended to discuss and provide different viewpoints on the likelihood of an ideological censorship in North America, and the West in general, a censorship that would exclude certain valid viewpoints from the public square, and what, if any form such a censorship would take.
In recent years, most especially in Canada, this question has become a matter of increasing concern for pro-life and pro-family groups whose most innocuous expressions of their core beliefs now often fall under the jurisdiction of unconstitutional “hate crime” laws. LifeSiteNews has a special interest in the question, since it is Canadian based, although it will soon expand into the U.S. and has been covering international developments for some time.
Is An Unconstitutional Ideological Censorship Possible?
The question of an ideological censorship involves so many variables that it is difficult to know where to begin or what exactly to discuss. That an unconstitutional ideological censorship of some degree may very well occur in any of the North American nations or elsewhere in the West is certainly a possibility, but the form that it would take is far more difficult to predict.
It is certainly unlikely that control of the web would take the form that it has in communist China. However, the direction the Clinton administration was taking the U.S. and the constant trashing of democracy by Canada’s corrupt Liberal government should cause us to consider that anything is possible. It is unlikely, at least for now, though, that either the United States or Canada could get away with hiring the many tens of thousands of employees that would be needed to effectively monitor both local and incoming international internet content in an attempt to inculcate their citizens with a strict and narrow set of political or social propaganda. Some estimates place the number of such Chinese employees in excess of thirty thousand.
If internet censorship were to occur in the West, it would much more likely take the form of a gradual shift, guided by corporations and governments, upsetting the balance of information available to the average and unwitting citizen. Often such changes may come disguised as a solution to what is perceived as some social ill. In this scenario the face of the internet would slowly begin to resemble the face of corporate mainstream media, finely crafted by the hands of their finest plastic surgeons.
Corporate Censorship and the Web of Deceit
One very interesting (albeit a tad too apocalyptic) article on this take on the topic was published in July of this year on buzzflash.com, entitled Web of Deceit: How Internet Freedom Got the Federal Ax, And Why Corporate News Censored the Story. (http://www.buzzflash.com/contributors/05/07/con052…)
“Web of Deceit” presents the thesis of a repeat in the realm of the web of the same type of informational control already current in the West—that of corporate control, with the fist of the government exercising only a proximate control through suspect financial relationships with media corporations.
Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D., a media ethicist and author of a number of books, including News Incorporated: Corporate Media Ownership and Its Threat to Democracy, begins with his projected “nightmare scenario”, quoted at the beginning of this article:
The days are now numbered for surfing an uncensored, open-access Internet, using your favorite search engine to search a bottomless cyber-sea of information in the grandest democratic forum ever conceived by humankind. Instead you can look forward to Googling about on a walled-off, carefully selected corpus of government propaganda and sanitized information “safe” for public consumption. Indoctrinated and sealed off from the outer world, you will inhabit a matrix where every ounce of creative, independent thinking that challenges government policies and values will be squelched.
Although Cohen’s concern is fueled by one particular United States Supreme Court decision (Brand X), the scenario he presents is certainly relevant for other parts of the world as well.
In the Supreme Court decision in question, the majority opinion struck down a law requiring cable companies to share their cables with other ISPs. The practical result, according to Cohen, of this governmental deregulation, the striking down for cable companies of what was called the “common-carrier” provision that had for years applied to the lines of telephone companies, will be to discourage vital competition from smaller ISPs. Unable to lay their own cables, these independent ISPs will crumble under the power of corporate juggernauts such as Comcast and Verizon. These juggernauts will then increasingly hold the power to dictate how or what information is routed across their cables.
Cohen alleges that “The Court opinion…was fashioned to serve corporate interests. Instead of taking up the question of whether corporate monopolies would destroy the open-access architecture of the Internet, it used sophistry and legally-suspect arguments to obscure its constitutional duty to protect media diversity, free speech, and the public interest.”
The possible consequence of this increase of corporate internet control is that “Broadband and DSL are therefore on their way to becoming extensions of corporate mainstream media.” With a select, wealthy few heading the largest internet providers and online information sources, the chances of the majority of the public receiving one, filtered viewpoint is dramatically increased. Monopolies have always been destructive, and this dangerous possible monopolization of the internet extends even to what search engines are used since “there are biases internal to the selection criteria of search engines.” In order to undercut Google’s current dominance Cohen encourages the diversification of search engine usage as one means of fighting corporate control.
“Affordable, uncensored Internet for all Americans is presently in danger of becoming a pipe dream,” concludes Cohen. “Unless we act now, the outlook for survival of democracy in cyberspace is dismal, and it grows dimmer with each successive conquest by mainstream corporate media.”
As far as immediate government interference in content available on the internet is concerned, both Canada and the United States appear to be about equivalent at this point in time. Although the United States federal government has twice attempted and succeeded in passing censorship laws intended to protect children from harmful material, both laws were subsequently overturned as too “restrictive”.
In 1999 the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a media release declaring their intention not to interfere with the internet. “After conducting an in-depth review under the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act beginning last July,” said the press-release, “the CRTC has concluded that the new media on the Internet are achieving the goals of the Broadcasting Act and are vibrant, highly competitive and successful without regulation. The CRTC is concerned that any attempt to regulate Canadian new media might put the industry at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.”
The trick, however, in this case, is that traditional laws do not suddenly become void when applied to information disseminated on the internet. The widespread, comprehensive enforcement of them becomes difficult and almost impossible when the material originates from other parts of the world, but individual government-sanctioned prosecution of the disseminators of illegal content that originates locally is certainly possible.
As was previously mentioned, this becomes especially dangerous in Canada, which has already passed a law adding “sexual orientation” to the list of criminally punishable hate-crimes. But however noble it sounds to prohibit and discourage hate against homosexuals, it is no secret that what can fall under the umbrella of “hate-crimes” is far too broad and often blatantly unconstitutional. As well, it should be noted that at the United Nations, Canada, UN staff and other delegations have been ferociously trying to make access to abortion an international human right. Hence, opposition to abortion, if this push eventually succeeds, could also become illegal and a supposed “hate crime”.
Canada has seen a number of cases where members of the public have been prosecuted for calmly and intellectually defending their positions regarding the immorality of homosexuality. One bishop from Western Canada was hauled before a human rights tribunal to answer for his defense of basic Christian teachings, although the gay activist who brought a complaint ultimately dropped it, admitting that he had charged the bishop for sake of the publicity. A second similar complaint against Bishop Henry is still pending.
Canadian traditional values blog users, or news sources, who hold a position that criticizes homosexuality in any way, shape, or form, are by no means immune from possible prosecution under the law, although the legal status of internet publications remains just as hazy as everything else pertaining to internet regulation.
The internet poses a unique challenge to principled, family-friendly users. The freedom to acquire and disseminate information not normally available in other media, that allows individuals to be exposed to facts and truth in a way that traditional mainstream media do not permit, is something to be cherished and carefully protected. At the same time, the great potential damage to families, especially through all-pervasive pornography, is to be decried and debated.
Unfortunately, the disconnect between the left and the right on all this means that any attempt to “censor” the internet by the right is perceived by the left as an attempt to curb “free-speech”. Furthermore, the dangers inherent in granting governments—especially governments as shaky on their foundational principles as Canada and the United States evidently are—any authority to monitor and censor the internet for a very real good, could at the same time lend government authority to exclude legitimate material expressing valid viewpoints from the public square.
Ultimately, the most effective revolutions in history have come, not from the top down, from federal powers to the people, but from the people up, and this remains true for this powerful cultural tool, the Internet. The Internet is only as good or bad as what people make of it, and principled users should continue their efforts to provide principled information and entertainment via the internet, to make full use of the breathtaking potential of the technology.
As the world comes to grips with this elusive entity the debate over these difficult issues of censorship and internet control will continue unabated. In order to ensure that pro-family/pro-life forces do not get left out of the debate it is necessary that individuals keep up to date with developments and ensure that they are well acquainted with their rights.
When the first signals of threats to freedom present themselves, political representatives must be educated and asked to do everything possible to ensure legitimate freedom of speech is fully protected. And LifeSiteNews, of course, will continue to educate its readers on this very vital topic whenever notable developments occur.
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