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Discursive essay - Should we be worried about recent trends in internet censorship?

Most of us are aware of the recent political unrest is Egypt, Libya and many other Middle Eastern countries. While the many images of protests and violence that are now becoming all too familiar may seem disturbing, I found the news that several governments had responded to these events with almost total blocks to internet access to be far more unsettling. It is just part of a growing trend in many nations towards the use of internet control and censorship measures. My question is, should we be worried? For those that do not know, internet censorship covers any means of preventing or suppressing (through technical means or otherwise) accessing certain content on the internet. This can range from specific web pages or sites right through to a total block of internet access. Many people would argue that certain online material, such as extreme pornography or strong racism, should be banned simply because their very existence can only be detrimental to society. Certainly in many place, including here in the UK, content of this nature is already censored, often in a very low key way. British internet users attempting to access a banned site are redirected a fairly harmless looking error page. Subtle measures such as this are certainly not invasive. In fact the vast majority of people who go online every day never even notice them. However the very nature of the internet means that such policies are unlikely to be truly effective: banned pages are simply replaced with new ones and new ways of bypassing existing filters are developed. This means the people with a genuine desire to access such content are not really affected leading many to argue that a more heavy handed approach to censorship is needed. That said though, surely a filter such as this still fulfils its most important role of protecting the general public (especially children) from viewing potentially harmful content online? To some people this is clearly not the case. The Australian government has recently unveiled plans for a new mandatory internet censorship policy. One of the main arguments for such a scheme is the increased protection of minors and the proposals include details of a

filter primarily for this purpose. While its certainly true that young children, especially those who have little experience in accessing the web, can unwittingly stumble across very disturbing content a mandatory filtering program may not be the only solution. Domestic programs such as Net Nanny are specifically designed to make the internet safe for its younger users are widely available for affordable prices and many common web browsers (such as Internet Explorer) have child protection features already built in to them to some degree. The main problem with measures such as these is that its up to the user to apply them in the first place so many children can remain unprotected online. Still, an effective government education policy would reduce this number considerably making the need for such a strong approach seem questionable at best. Other people view internet censorship as nothing more than the application of basic standards many feel should apply to any form of media. After all other forms of media such as television and radio are subject to such standards as well as the mandatory control that goes with them form familiar organisations such as Ofcom or the BBFC. This is often backed up by the law and many countries have existing legislation regarding material that is not considered fit for public viewing such as our very own Obscene publications act. Its certainly does not seem right that the internet should be exempt from such basic standards but I would say that government controlled censorship is not the only way of implementing this. Independent regulatory bodies (such as the Internet Watch Foundation) and industry self regulation can apply a basic set of guidelines without the need for mandatory internet filter. The effectiveness of automatic filters is also doubtful. When the Australian government conducted live trials of several filtering programs, it found that as much as 13% of banned content was still accessible. Even for the most accurate filters this figure never dropped below 2%. Over blocking was also a serious problem access was denied to many perfectly innocent web pages meaning that completely legitimate, useful sites could be rendered unusable while supposedly blocked content was still accessible. There are other ways in which normal internet users are penalized by such initiatives. Overall internet speeds are dramatically decreased (the Australian

trials showed speeds decline by anything from 20% to over 80%) with the most accurate filter having the most profound effect. Also since computer programs are devoid of any form of common sense they are prone to embarrassing errors such as the so called Scunthorpe problem where a website is blocked because of a specific string of letters are detected in their domain name. This all means that the implementation of filtering technology can fail to produce the desired effect. The other major issue with this kind of censorship is the process of deciding which content should be censored. Can governments really be trusted to decide what is and is not suitable for public consumption without taking political interests into account? This certainly does not seem to be the case. The censorship of the whistleblowers website Wikileaks in many countries is a perfect example of content being targeted purely for political purposes. In addition many valid debatable issues - such as euthanasia - can find themselves as targets for censorship. Internet censorship is also unique in that the regulators, and therefore governments, have absolute control over what content is accessible. With not official appeals system in place such a system is wide open to abuse should it fall into the wrong hands. A prime example of this would be Chinas infamous internet censorship policy which has been used countless times to suppress political dissent. This is, I feel, where the real dangers of internet censorship lie: it is not only a tool to protect populations; rather a weapon that can potentially be used to suppress and control. Although I do see that there a valid arguments for such a system I do not believe they justify its use and I personally see the recent trends towards them as very worrying indeed.