Internet Censorship Essay, Research Paper
In writing this essay I aim to give an insight into one of, if not the most important issue on the Internet today, that of censorship. I will first give a brief outline as to how the Internet came about and how it works, as this is needed to understand how the Internet can or cannot be censored. I will also give reasons why governments and individuals want to censor the Internet, attempts that have been made, and why people are opposed to these attempts at censorship. Lastly I will outline if censorship of the Internet is practicable or achievable and give my own viewpoint.
According to (Kristula 1997) the beginnings of the Internet can be traced back to 1969. APRA (The Advanced Research Projects Agency) a division of the American Department of Defence created a network of four servers called the APRANET. Its purpose was to decentralise information on the network so that in the event of a nuclear war information would still flow over the network. Information passed around it until it reached its destination, it was not necessary to follow any particular route. It is this key point the fact that there is no one place through which all information passes that, as I will explain in more detail later makes censorship difficult if not impossible. The network expanded in size and speed as technological advances continued over the next twenty years. Standards began to emerge for instance the TCP/IP protocol for transmission of data over the network. HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) the standard way in which to send and receive Internet documents had come about by 1990. Four years later the APRANET was disbanded, this evolved further with in excess of three million computers being connected together to form a public network now known as the Internet. The Internet continues to grow at a massive rate everyday, with figures of the number of people connected being obsolete before they even have a chance to be published. This rapid growth caught many people by surprise the main feature of the early Internet was the complete freedom from censorship, and its true democratic ideal. In the words of (Sterling 93) the Internet is a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy…there are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders…no central authority . However by the mid 1990 s governments and other groups began to show an interest becoming concerned with the unrestricted flow of data and potential of the Internet.
As mentioned above groups concerned with censorship of the Internet fall broadly into two categories, governments and organised groups of individuals. There are a number of reasons governments want to censor the Internet: 1) To stop pornography, both access of obscene material by children and the distribution of paedophile material. 2) To limit discussion of political and/or religious matters, Zambia banned an on-line edition of an opposition newspaper, and imprisoned the editors for criticising the government. 3) To counteract misinformation , some governments actively pursue people involved in what they consider to be deliberate subversive misinformation campaigns designed to undermine the government. 4) To protect cultural boundaries. With the U.S. domination of the Internet and the subsequent prevalence of the English language, the French government has for instance passed a law declaring that all sites must be in French. 5) To stop hate speech and groups, in Germany Anti-Semitism is illegal the government has made numerous attempts to ban neo-nazi sites. 6) To limit the spread of subversive knowledge, this mainly covers sites promoting terrorism, which can include information on making bombs etc. 7) To enforce legal rulings, the Internet can and has been used to circumvent rulings concerning the British Official Secrets Act. (Global Censorship 99)
As far as organised groups of individuals are concerned, by far the most important reason for censoring the Internet seems to be that of pornography. There are a number of organisations dedicated to promoting Internet censorship mainly for this reason, they include Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility , The Christian Coalition , CyberAngels , and the National Coalition for the protection of Children and Families (Duarte 97).
Which leads on to the question Should the Internet be Censored? The arguments for and against both have valid and worthy points to support their reasons. Good arguments can be put forward for some of the reasons for censorship outlined above, most people wouldn t argue with trying to censor paedophile material, or neo-nazi material. On the anti censorship side the main argument seems to be the protection of free speech, with the majority of material on the Internet being American dominated, this has become a particularly contentious issue in the United States. Mainly because unlike in this country they have a constitution, which sets out basic rights for every American citizen and is considered by many Americans as sacrosanct. The first amendment declares that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances
Their argument is that any attempt at censorship is a violation of the first amendment and therefore unconstitutional. A major milestone in the censorship issue occurred in 1996 when the U.S. Congress passed the Telecommunications bill, part of which consisted of an act that allowed the government to censor speech and eliminate all sexually explicit material on the Internet this was called the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The act met with widespread disapproval and inspired new organisations like the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to form in order to fight for free speech as laid down in the constitution. Major companies including Microsoft, America Online and Apple supported them. The range and number of different people and organisations opposed to the act showed the Congress how strongly people felt on the issue of free speech on the Internet. The CIEC supported by the organisations named above launched a civil suit in the federal court challenging the CDA on the basis that it was unenforceable and violated the first amendment. In response the defendants argued in favour of the CDA because The Internet threatens to give every child a free pass into the equivalent of every adult bookstore and every adult video store in the country (Mattos 97). However the three judges that heard the CDA case unanimously opposed this assertion, declaring the CDA unconstitutional on the grounds that it contravened the first and fifth amendments.
In the United Kingdom the issue of Internet censorship has not become as big an issue as it has in the U.S. with the government favouring a self-regulatory approach for Internet content regulation as opposed to the introduction of legal solutions. The approach by the UK government is largely inline with developments in this area at the European Union level. However there have been some regulatory attempts in the U.K. with the government keen to try to regulate the Internet in areas mainly concerning state secrets and personal attacks (Gates 96).
So can the Internet actually be censored? The Internet is distinct from any information medium that has gone before it the uninterrupted flow of information makes it unique. Whereas television and other more established forms of media such as newspapers are expensive to distribute and set up, virtually any individual or group can afford to become a web publisher. All they require is the necessary software, a network connection and obviously a computer. With traditional media such as television and newspapers the government can quite easily lay down rules and protocols because these media are easy to stop by for instance blocking a television signal or banning the publication. With the Internets ability for anyone to publish material, and more importantly the ability to publish it from anywhere on the globe, government s attempts at censorship are doomed to fail. This is where attempts such as the CDA are fatally flawed they are efforts to enforce one countries laws on a global level. It is unrealistic for instance to try to apply the UK s laws on pornography on the Internet because the UK has a very strict approach to hardcore pornography, whereas in the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries the attitude and legal viewpoint is completely different. Anyone who wanted to publish pornography on the Internet who lives in the UK simply has to base his or her material on a server in another county. As stated before the way the Internet works there is no one single or central point through which information passes so material coming into a country cannot be blocked. Another reason why censorship is unworkable is the ability for material to be almost instantly archived upon publication on the net. For example I could publish an article containing material covered by the British Official Secrets Act which could be blocked by the government in this country, however people could have already downloaded this and posted it on their own sites where others will download it and so on. Making communication companies filter the content they carry on the Internet has also been suggested as a means of controlling what goes on the Internet but as (Gates 96) states This idea would put companies in the business of censoring all communication. It s entirely unworkable, for one thing because the volume of communicated information is way too large. This idea is no more feasible or desirable than asking a telephone company to monitor and accept legal responsibility for everything that s spoken or transmitted on its telephone wires.
Personally I am against any form of censorship on the Internet whatsoever. For one thing its unworkable for all the reasons outlined above. A much better and realistic approach is for the Internet to be self-regulating as much as possible. There are a number of software products such as Net Nanny which allow control of material coming into your PC from the Internet. This solves the problem of children being able to view accidentally or otherwise unsuitable pornographic material. The parents are able to filter out the offending material by setting the controls to block material containing key words. Obviously anybody in their right mind doesn t want to see child pornography or terrorist material on the Internet but in my view separate laws to try to regulate this type of material are unnecessary as there are already laws in this country making possession of this type of material illegal. Why make separate laws relating to the Internet when there are already laws covering possession of pornography and terrorism prevention given the fact that these laws would be virtually impossible to implement.
The Internet is a place where people in any country no matter how repressed by the government can discuss their own views, political opinions, confront issues and express themselves. It offers the possibility for the education and expansion of people s minds right across the globe. The potential for the Internet is almost unbounded it is already a major area of discussion all around the world and is still in its relative infancy. The Internet community must be allowed to govern itself, no government can or should be allowed to dictate what can and cannot be published on it. It should be left free so anyone no matter whatever their viewpoint can add new ideas and opinions so we can all benefit from this remarkable new medium.
Akdeniz, Y. (1998) Who Watches the Watchmen: Part II Accountability & Effective Self-Regulation in the Information Age Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK) http://www.cyber-rights.org/watchmen-ii.htm
Duarte, D.R. Internet Censorship http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Gallery/3702/censor.htm
Gates, B. (1996). The Road Ahead New York, Penguin Books.
Kristula, D. (1997) The History of the Internet http://www.davesite.com/webstation/net-history.html
Mattos, J. (1997) The CDA Before the Court http://pathfinder.com/@sAbDXgQAlb0upRm2/time/daily/1997/970319/970319-1.html
Global Censorship http://ils.unc.edu/global_censor
Sterling, B. (1993). Short History of the Internet. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction