My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, Vancouver Sun version, homepage version) focuses on the growth of Internet censorship and the accompanying pressure on the business community to do something about it. I begin by noting that as the Internet moved into the mainstream in the mid-1990s, John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, coined the phrase "the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."Gilmore’s comments were a reference to the architecture of the Internet, which was designed to ensure that information was delivered by the most efficient means possible and render attempts to block content nearly impossible. Yet years later, a growing number of countries seem determined to challenge Gilmore's maxim. China is the best known (as evidenced by recent events in Tibet), having implemented both a massive content filtering system that exerts control over external content and demanded that foreign Internet firms establish Chinese-versions of their services that abide by the government's requirements.
China's censorship system may be the most extensive, but it is not alone. The University of Toronto's OpenNet Initiative, a world leader in tracking state-sponsored Internet censorship, recently co-published Access Denied, a book that highlights its pervasive growth. The book notes that some countries control all public Internet services, thereby creating an easy pipeline to implementing filtering technologies. Countries such as Syria have sought to chill access to the Internet by requiring cybercafe owners to record the names and identification cards of clients. Others – including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar – have tried to censor content by arresting local bloggers who dare to post content that does not meet the approval of the government. In recent months, some countries have also tried to block access to widely popular sites on the basis of a small sample of offending content. For example, both Turkey and Thailand have briefly blocked access to YouTube due to offending videos, while the United Arab Emirates has blocked access to Facebook.
The growth of government-sponsored Internet censorship has fueled mounting pressure within the European Union and the United States to respond.