Global Net Censorship in 2009-EFF

January 17, 2009

Global Net Censorship in 2009: For The Children, for the Rightsholders
Electronic Frontiers Foundation: January 14, 2009

Across the world, politicians perennially declare their intention to purge or blacklist websites they fear are damaging to children or the public welfare. The call for censorship hasn’t stopped, despite many years of evidence that pervasive Net censorship is invasive, infeasible, and economically damaging.

Nor is it likely to be stopped by today’s Internet Safety Technical Taskforce Report on protecting children from internet predators, which reinforced that Net censorship is an ineffective solution to an exaggerated problem.

Accordingly, this year sees continuing plans by governments across the world to limit Internet traffic by content type, or expand existing systems of control. China heads the list of censoring states in the public consciousness. Last week, its Ministry of Public Security demanded action and an apology from search engines for failing to take “efficient” measures against “vulgar content”. Baidu apologized, and Google committed to “working with the community to establish a healthy social climate”. Smaller blogging sites like were simply shut down.

Even in a state with such pervasive government censorship infrastructure, asking search engines and ISPs to proactively identify and eliminate all pornography online is asking the impossible. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has once again publicly demonstrated its continuing political power to demand that any site or link disappear from servers operating within China’s control.

China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region lies outside the Great Firewall and China’s mainland censorship system. Its government is currently completing public consultations on how it should update its regulation of obscene and indecent material for the digital age. (The consultation ends on January 31st).

The Hong Kong consultation is currently leaning towards a narrower censorship regime, similar to that adopted by many countries: it would not require mandatory censorship infrastructure, but rely on opt-in filters that can be used by end-users to stop minors from viewing such content. There is one new twist, however. One of the suggestions for publishers of offensive or indecent articles:

may involve limiting the bandwidth made available to such offenders or imposing temporary suspension or termination of service in case of contravention of contractual terms;

Regular followers of the global battle against “three strikes” policies will recognise this language as that suggested by IP rightsholders against alleged infringers.

It’s not unexpected that when one group proposes controlling content online, others will pick up on the techniques they propose. And if there’s one thing to look out for in the censorship rhetoric of 2009, it will be the ongoing efforts of IP rightholders to build multi-interest coalitions to advocate the same suite of blocking and filtering initiatives that we’ve seen elsewhere.

In Australia, Senator Conroy’s proposed compulsory filtering system continues to advance, with recent comments indicating that his plans include controlling peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic. In the United Kingdom, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham hinted at plans for a universal categorisation system for the Net, covering both “harmful content” and “copyright”.

The demands for Internet censorship never seem to go away. Neither do the obvious threats they pose to citizens’ privacy, freedom of expression and online freedom. The danger is that there are now many groups with an interest in pervasive and pre-emptive control over online content. Who else will join 2009’s global censorship chorus?

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