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Business in the Hotseat over Net Censorship

Michael Geist

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.

By Michael Geist, Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law
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Related topics: Censorship, Internet Governance
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