Countries like Iran and China are notorious for their Internet censorship regimes. But a growing number of democracies are setting up their own great fire walls.
- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
What’s targeted? Officially, child pornography and terrorism, but recent reports suggest the scope might be expanded.
What’s behind the wall? In January 2008, the Australian Parliament began considering a law to require all Internet service providers (ISPs) to filter the content they provide to users in order to block a blacklist of objectionable sites prepared by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Although the law is still in the planning stages, ISPs are required to have their filtering systems ready for testing by June 2009.
The government claimed that the blacklist would combat child pornography and terrorism-related sites, but in March 2009, the list of 2,935 sites was leaked by anticensorship Web site Wikileaks and revealed a much broader scope of content, including online poker, Satanism, and euthanasia. Some seemingly uncontroversial private businesses, such as a Queensland dentist’s office, were also included for unknown reasons. The release of the list has dampened public support for the law, and one of Australia’s largest ISPs recently announced it would not participate in the filtering tests.
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What’s targeted? File-sharing
What’s behind the wall? The French Parliament is debating and seems likely to pass the world’s toughest antipiracy law to date. Other countries have begun cracking down on file-sharers with fines, but the French law would require ISPs to deny Internet access to those who have been repeatedly caught illegally downloading material. A new administrative body would be created and granted judicial power to enforce the law. The controversial measure is strongly supported by music and film industry leaders, as well as President Nicolas Sarkozy (whose wife Carla Bruni recently released an album incidentally), and opposed by privacy groups and cable companies.
One of the law’s most controversial aspects is that it would penalize anyone whose Internet connection was used for downloading illegal material, even if the person wasn’t aware of it or the network was used without permission. All people in France, in effect, would be legally required to secure their wireless networks.
What’s targeted? Political radicalism, terrorist tools
What’s behind the wall? India’s Internet filtering is still sporadic, but the seemingly arbitrary nature of its enforcement has censorship watchdogs nervous. In 2003, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) was created to enforce the country’s filtering regime. CERT-In is the sole authority empowered to block Web sites, and there is no review or appeals process once it blacklists a site. Many blocked sites have been found to contain obscene material, but CERT-In has also shut down Hindu nationalists and other radical groups on social networking sites such as Orkut. In 2003, thousands of Indian Internet users were blocked from accessing Yahoo! Groups because CERT-In objected to a message board for a minor North Indian separatist group consisting of 25 people.
When it was revealed that the terrorists responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks used Google Earth to plan their assault, a prosecutor petitioned the Bombay High Court to block the popular site. The motion was ultimately thrown out, but security concerns are also dogging a rival satellite-mapping site being developed by the Indian government itself. The government agency building the program suggests that some sensitive sites might be blurred out in the final version.
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What’s targeted? Celebrity dirt
What’s behind the wall? Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona is best known for his controversial 1986 hand of God goal, but he also has a hand in one of the world’s most brazen acts of Web censorship. Maradona and about 70 other celebrities filed a class action suit in mid-2007 against Google and Yahoo!, claiming that their names were being associated with pornography or libelous sites against their will. A judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, essentially holding the search engines responsible for the content of other sites, a standard that a Google Argentina spokesperson told Time was like suing the newsstand for what appears in the newspapers it sells.
The search engines are appealing the ruling, but for now, if you search for Maradona or any of his co-plaintiffs on the Argentine version of Google or Yahoo!, you’ll get a message saying the search engine is obliged to temporarily suspend all or some of the results related to this search, followed by an abridged list of links to major news sites. It’s one thing for Maradona to try to cover up gossip about his past partying, but the plaintiffs also included several judges whose decisions have provoked online discussion, a fact many see as a major conflict of interest for the justices deciding the case. Unfortunately for Maradona, though, getting the dirt on him is as easy as loading up another country’s version of the search engines.
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What’s targeted: North Korean propaganda
What’s behind the wall: South Korea is one of the world’s most wired countries, with about 90 percent of households hooked up to the Web, but the Korean Internet is also one of the world’s most heavily policed. ISPs are reportedly required to block as many as 120,000 sites from an official government blacklist. Some sites on the list are for pornography and gambling — South Korea requires ISPs to self-police content that could be deemed harmful to youth — but much of it is content sympathetic to North Korea or advocating Korean reunification.
The medium may be new, but the justification is decades old. Thanks to the 1948 anticommunist National Security Law, South Koreans can be imprisoned for up to seven years for vaguely defined antistate activities. In recent years such activities have extended to the Internet, with communist activists being arrested for downloading material on Marxism. The National Security Law is controversial, and the South Korean government recently stated that it will relax restrictions on access to pro-North Korea sites, many of which are hosted in Japan. However, recent testing by the OpenNet Initiative has revealed that filtering is still pervasive.
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