Business in the Hotseat over Net Censorship

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.  Last month the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a proposal to treat Internet censorship by national governments as a trade barrier.  If approved by the European Council, it could require trade negotiators "to specifically deal with all restrictions to the provision of Internet and information society services by European companies in third countries as part of its external trade policy and to consider all unnecessary limitations to the provision of those services to be trade barriers.”

The trade barrier approach has also begun to attract attention in the United States, where some leading technology companies have faced Congressional criticism for co-operating with Chinese censorship efforts. Google has begun to make the case for linking trade with censorship, while Chris Smith, a U.S. Congressman, has twice introduced the Global Online Freedom Act, which would establish minimum corporate standards for online freedoms. Smith's bill placed the spotlight on the role that technology companies play in facilitating censorship.  Indeed, many countries actively deploy U.S. filtering software, leading to calls for restrictions on the export of such technologies.

While many of these proposals suffer from some critical flaws – punishing technology companies seems unlikely to stem the tide of net censorship and the inclusion of censorship within trade discussions further muddies contentious negotiations – it has become readily apparent that the world community should no longer passively assume that Gilmore's maxim still applies. With China now boasting the largest number of Internet users in the world, the uncomfortable reality is that hundreds of millions of global Internet users face some level of censorship.  That leaves governments and business on the hotseat, since routing around today's Internet censorship will require far more than a technological fix.

Update:  Mark Goldberg and Alec Saunders comment on this column.


  1. Farrell J. McGovern says:

    On a slighly different slant
    I was expecting an article about how corporations censor art…like AT&T “accidentally” censoring Pearl Jam’s anti-Bush remarks and the like.


  2. censor me
    hahahahaha “accidentally” hahahahaha

  3. The trade barrier approach doesn\’t muddy anything. Clicks are a commodity. For the vast majority of internet sites, clicks translate directly into dollars via the miracle of advertising. Anything which blocks access, which blocks those clicks, blocks trade. Internet censorship, particularly when implemented using comprehensive blocking systems such as China\’s, costs Western businesses unimaginable amounts of money.
    And this doesn\’t even begin to consider subscription services and international online shopping, both of which are certainly a direct form of commerce.

    Blocking a commercial website is, by definition, blocking commerce. Since the vast majority of the internet, even that which does not exist to make a profit, is ad-supported, it is impossible to create an internet censorship regime that does not adversely impact foreign economies.

    There are many sites that are being blocked, I noticed that sites which host security related material are blocked the most. What strikes me is that Canada might be following a different route as per your column(content management). Where does the content filtering approach fit with the right to freedom of speech and how can one restrict the export on content filtering software and avoid being called hypocritical….

  5. Censorship is happening in Canada as we speak. Bell and Rogers are censoring P2P data and encrypted data.

    CRTC is clueless and irrelevant. Canada needs Net Neutrality legislation.

  6. Where is the EP Resolution ?
    I though that the European Parliament idea would have been a great thing – but when I started to look into the EP website, I couldn’t find it.
    Looking at the Tuesday minutes – I see nothing [ link ]
    The original news is just in Dutch – [ link ]

    The only thing that I found in relation with the Jules Maaten was this question that he addressed on 21 February …
    [ link ]

    The only problem is that a Question to the EC has more a political value than a legal one…

    My 2 cents..

  7. How can you criticize...? says:

    After supporting censorship in Canada (‘project cleanfeed’) don’t you feel it is a bit hypocritical to continue to speak out against censorship? You can’t have it both ways, either you are for or against censorship. I lost all respect for you after that debacle, I keep waiting for you to redeem yourself by speaking out against censorship IN ALL FORMS. Looks like I’ll have to keep waiting.