Internet at 30: Censorship Spreads

Internet censorship is commonly regarded as a disconcerting feature of authoritarian Third World regimes such as The People’s Republic of China, Iran, and Cuba known to strictly censor and block online information that is deemed to be ‘threatening’ to the government’s authority. Such phenomenon, however, seems to be spreading to the OECD countries, with South Korea, Australia (Since 2009), and France (2011) being categorised as ‘countries under surveillance’ for Reporters Without Borders’ annual “Enemies of the Internet” list.

Image courtesy of Tarale, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Tarale, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Out of the three countries, the South Korean government has long been criticised for its online censorship, which has been historically strict in terms of materials related to North Korean propaganda – a South Korean activist was recently arrested for ironically re-tweeting North Korean government propaganda, such as a poster with a bottle of ‘Johnnie Walker’ whisky Photoshopped over an assault rifle. However, the true Korean censorship debacle lies with its harsh crackdown on cyber-bullying and pornography and its recently-defunct ‘Online Real Name Rule’, which required South Koreans to use their real names, verified by the Resident Registration Number, on Internet sites and forums from 2007 up to January 2012 in order to prevent cyber-attacks against politicians and celebrities, in addition to curbing minors’ access to pornographic websites. The Rule was only repealed as the South Korean Supreme Court implemented new penalties for people who spread false information about politicians online, especially on social networking sites such as Twitter. South Korea continues to be ‘under-surveillance’ as its ‘disregard’ for freedom of speech on the Internet has not been sitting well with Reporters Without Borders’ agenda.

Interestingly enough, France has recently come under fire from Reporters Without Borders, due to its implementation of HADOPI (Haute Authorité pour la diffusion des œuvres et la protection des droits sur internet/ law promoting the distribution and protection of creative works on the internet) or Creation and Internet law, which aims to eliminate illegal downloading by expanding the availability of legally downloadable material and by setting up a “three strikes” system, against Internet users who illegally download files containing copyrighted  material. Under the “three strikes” system, such users are first warned with an email then sent a registered letter with another email if a second offense is committed within a six-month period. If the user ignores the warnings, he/she is then referred to the Public Prosecutor’s office by HADOPI Commission, and if found guilty, the user may be subjected to a suspension of his/her connection for up to one month. Although strongly backed by the French entertainment industry, HADOPI has been subjected to hosts of criticism, as it essentially undermines the fundamental right to Internet access and suspension of Internet connection is a violation of the public’s freedom of access to information. Moreover, the law is said to contradict the terms of Article 11 of the most important French legal document of all – the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens of 1789 – which guarantees the free communication of ideas and opinions and asserts that “Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, print freely,” as restricting Internet access can then be translated into an abuse of freedom of expression.

Another subversion of the ‘fundamental right’ the French have enjoyed since 1789 is the controversial recent French court ruling ordering Twitter to disclose the identities of racist and anti-Semitic users on 25 January 2013. The decision was issued by the Parisian high court as a response to a lawsuit filed by the Union of French Jewish Students in October that sought to remove increasing number of anti-Semitic tweets, combined with the efforts of the French women’s rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to eliminate online hate speech on Twitter. She had argued that those who make racist or homophobic statements “are not less punishable and less likely to appear in court because they appear online,” as France has a law that criminalises incitement to hatred based on race and religion. Vallaud-Belkacem then went out to enlist Twitter’s help to remove or censor tweets and accounts of those who have violated such laws, as in the case of the account of a neo-Nazi group in Germany last October. The French minister’s crusade against cyber-bullying is eerily similar to that of South Korea, which is seen as a threat to the freedom of its citizens. Moreover, despite Vallaud-Belkacem’s positive intentions to protect those abused in cyberspace, opponents argue that her quest can lead to a dangerous state-led suppression of ideas, and freedom of speech.

This perceived attack on freedom of speech and freedom of information reached its peak in Australia, where the government is under Reporters Without Borders’ watch mainly due to its previous goal of creating a mandatory Internet filtering system, which would be opaquely managed by a government agency based on a very broad criteria, including paedophilia, sexual fetishes in films, detailed instruction in the use of proscribed drugs and content that promotes or instructs serious crimes. The measures were abandoned by the government last November, but a voluntary system, which was introduced by the Australian Internet Industry Association in July last year, is still very much in place. Similar to the proposed government-sponsored filtering system, the voluntary system, which is applied by various Internet service providers, blocks access to inappropriate content such as child pornography and sexual abuse. Such ISP-sponsored blocks are largely unpopular and have stirred a heated debate in Australia, as many have deemed the procedure unnecessary and ineffective.

Opponents of the Internet filtering system argue the core problem lies within the fact that the filter will not be able to actually prevent the spread of R and X rated contents and protect children, as it cannot regulate chat rooms or peer-to-peer file sharing sources where such illegal materials are most often found. In addition, it strongly argues against the government’s protocols as Internet users themselves would have to pay for the ISP’s expensive filtering systems, which in fact violates Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by enforcing unnecessary restriction on freedom of speech. Thus, despite the Australian government’s abandonment of a national Internet filtering system, Australia continues to be ‘under surveillance’ as the government transferred its censorship authority to the hands of the ISPs, while undermining the Australian citizens’ right to unrestricted cyber-information.

The Internet, which has turned 30 this year, is arguably as important an invention as the printing press. Its role in the 21st century, from the Arab Spring to crowdsourcing to the rise of media piracy, has been crucial not only in shaping international politics, but also international legislation put forth to regulate the new tool of communication. Attempt after attempt has been made to curtail its power and to keep it under control. However, the reason the Internet has had globally significant impact is specifically because of the lack of control from any government or international conglomerate. While any attempt to clear the Internet of child pornography and hate speech is commendable, it is always possible that vaguely-worded laws – and in the realm of Internet control, laws are almost always worded as obtusely as possible – will be used for suppression of dissidence, and not just in far-flung and unfamiliar spots on the map, but also in ‘liberal’ Western countries.

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