Censorship is the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the government or media organizations as determined by a censor.
The rationale for censorship is different for various types of information censored:
- Moral censorship is the removal of materials that are obscene or otherwise morally questionable. Pornography, for example, is often censored under this rationale, especially child pornography, which is censored in most jurisdictions in the world.
- Military censorship is the process of keeping military intelligence and tactics confidential and away from the enemy. This is used to counter espionage, which is the process of gleaning military information. Very often, militaries will also attempt to suppress politically inconvenient information even if that information has no actual intelligence value.
- Political censorship occurs when governments hold back information from their citizens. The logic is to exert control over the populace and prevent free expression that might foment rebellion.
- Religious censorship is the means by which any material objectionable to a certain faith is removed. This often involves a dominant religion forcing limitations on less prevalent ones. Alternatively, one religion may shun the works of another when they believe the content is not appropriate for their faith.
- Corporate censorship is the process by which editors in corporate media outlets intervene to halt the publishing of information that portrays their business or business partners in a negative light.
A variety of control mechanisms are employed by repressive governments seeking to limit the ways the Internet is used, ranging from sophisticated surveillance and censorship to threats of retaliation (which foster self-censorship) and actual harassment and arrests of Internet users. Such regimes often require the assistance of foreign Internet companies operating in their countries.
These global technology companies find themselves in a dilemma. They often must choose between following the laws and the requests of authorities of the host country, or refusing to do so and risking the loss of business licenses or the ability to sell services in that country. Human rights groups have protested that Yahoo! and Google censor and remove material deemed sensitive by host governments on country-specific search engines. Microsoft is said to censor Chinese versions of its blog platforms. Human rights groups also charge that Yahoo! has provided Chinese authorities personally identifying information about users that has allowed the government to identify and arrest individuals for statements made on the Web. A representative of Google acknowledged the problem of government involvement, noting
|“||As our . . . Burma experiences indicate, our products are platforms for free expression, transparency, and accountability. Because of this, we often face efforts by governments throughout the world to restrict or deny access to our products.||”|
The Global Online Freedom Act of 2009 (GOFA) (H.R. 2271) would have mandated that companies selling Internet technologies and services to repressive countries take actions to combat censorship and protect personally identifiable information. Some believe, however, that technology can offer a complementary and, in some cases, better and more easily implemented solution to prevent government censorship. Hardware and Internet services, in and of themselves, are neutral elements of the Internet; it is how they are implemented by various countries that makes Internet access "repressive."
For example, hardware, such as routers, is needed to provide Internet service everywhere. However, hardware features intended for day-to-day Internet traffic management, conducted by Internet service providers (ISPs) and governments for benign purposes, can be misused. Repressive governments are able to use these features to censor traffic and monitor use — sometimes using them to identify specific individuals for prosecution. It is not currently feasible to remove those features from the product, even when sold to countries that use those features to repress political speech.
On the other hand, Internet services, such as Google, are often tailored for deployment to specific countries. Such tailoring is done to bring the company's products and services in line with the laws of that country, and not with the end goal of allowing the country to repress and censor its citizenry. In many cases, tailoring does not raise many questions about free speech and political repression because the country is not considered to be a repressive regime. Under Canadian human rights law, for example, it is illegal to promote violence against protected groups; therefore, when reported, Google.ca will remove such links from search results.
Internet censorship and the prosecution of individuals who attempt to circumvent that censorship are unlikely to be eliminated in some countries. However, while some governments are continually looking for new and more thorough methods to restrict or inhibit Internet use, citizens in these countries are active in developing techniques to circumvent those efforts.
- Lucie Morillon, Washington Director of Reporters Without Borders, Testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, U.S. House of Representatives (June 18, 2009).
- Nicole Wong, Deputy General Counsel, Google, Inc., Testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law (May 20, 2008).
- Testimony of Mark Chandler, Cisco Systems, before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law (May 2, 2008).
- Testimony of Nicole Wong, Google, Inc. (May 2, 2008).
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