Blown To Bits

A Move Against Global Internet Censorship

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

One of the most serious problems facing the Internet is that the free flow of information it permits is blocked by a variety of national regulations and laws. We give several examples in Blown to Bits: Google’s concession to Chinese demands that its search engine not return certain results, and the judgment of an Australian court that Barron’s had libeled an Australian businessman by Web publishing, in New Jersey, something that was perfectly legal in the U.S.

Now a joint effort by several Internet companies and nonprofits including the Berkman Center as resulted in a set of principles about how to deal with censorship and privacy violations demanded by national governments. (New York Times story, Wall Street Journal story and related blog. I can’t find the actual text of the agreement anywhere.)

The rules apparently will not cause any immediate drastic changes — we can be confident that Google will still be in China a year from now — and for that reason have drawn criticism from some human rights groups. But this is a very tough issue, and something is better than nothing. Essentially what we have here is a parallel to the anti-apartheid Sullivan Principles for companies doing business in South Africa. (Probably less onerous on the companies than the Sullivan Principles, actually.) There was always dispute about whether the Sullivan Principles went far enough and whether they played a significant role in bringing about change, but I think there is no doubt that they raised global awareness, and that alone would be a step forward for the Internet privacy and free-speech issues.

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