Blown To Bits

The Week in Internet Censorship

Saturday, March 21st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Americans can learn a lot about what not to do with the Internet by observing what happens abroad. Unfortunately we too often take exactly the wrong lesson and decide that gee, if people in country X can try to control some social ill that the Internet has facilitated, we’d better try too.

For example, shortly after the Mumbai attacks, there were reports that the terrorists had used Google Earth to plot their path through the city. An Indian court called for a ban on Google Earth itself — to kill the technology, no matter how useful for good, because it had also been used for evil. Not to be outdone by the Indians, a California legislator last week introduced legislation that would require the blurring of Google Earth images. The rationale? To give Californians “the same level of protections that foreign governments extend to their own citizens.” As though we were in a protection competition with every nation of the world, and no other American value, such as freedom of information, was at stake.

An interesting game of cat and mouse has been playing itself out in China. Stirred to resist censorship of the Web, inventive Chinese technophiles have flooded it with cartoons and children’s ditties about grass-mud horses and river crabs. These are parables about censorship — the Chinese words for these creatures resemble, on the one hand, a dirty curse and the official euphemism for “censorship.” For awhile it looked like the perpetrators were untouchable — who could object to a little music video with some alpaca-like creatures romping through the grass? Alas, late last week China laid down the law — no more talk of river crabs on the Internet, or else. Will it work? We shall see. In the very same issue of the New York Times there is a story about a famous Chinese artist who is using the Web with apparent impunity to protest the suppression of information about official malfeasance in response to a terrible earthquake that killed many people.

But that’s China. Back to the world of democracies, for a taste of what may be coming our way. Australia adopted very severe anti-Internet-pornography rules, which are now being implemented. The list of banned sites has now been revealed, and it includes several legal sites, including one for a dental surgeon, one for a legal gambling site, and one for a tour operator. (Follow the link if you want to get to the full list on Wikileaks, but be warned that most of the sites in the list are pretty sketchy places.) A pretty furious reaction seems to be afoot, but the mistakes could easily have been predicted. How many false positives, that is, legal information mistakenly banned from the nation, are the Australians willing to tolerate in order to shut out the material that is officially illegal? Who is deciding on which sites are illegal, anyway (apparently these decisions are being made without any process at all in Australia). And how will American lawmakers respond when such measures are, as they have been and inevitably will be again, proposed in order to protect Americans?

Added 3/22: I should have included a reference to the micro-storm over Britney Spears’ new song “If You Seek Amy,” as in “all the boys and all the girls are begging to if you seek Amy,” pretty much the same trick as the Chinese are doing with the mud horses and river crabs. The Parents Television Council is outraged and claims that radio stations are violating the laws about broadcast indecency if they play the song before 10pm. We tell the tale of broadcast indecency in Chapter 8 — one of these days a case like this is going to work its way up the federal court system, and we’ll see if our judicial system follows the model set by Chinese authorities.

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