Media Reflections

The flurry of recent press surrounding the Citizen Lab and the OpenNet Initiative has given me an opportunity to reflect on Internet filtering/censorship research, circumvention technology and the politics free speech on the Internet. The discourse surrounding freedom of speech carries far more political connotations than glossy media reports reveal. The discourse characterizes Internet filtering as a dichotomy: that free speech is something “we” have and “they” do not. Such a characterization creates a perception that Internet censorship research is embedded in a right-wing or neo-liberal worldview oscillating on a political continuum between a paternalistic view of global human rights and an anti-communist, islamophobic ideological position. However, beneath the surface layer a thorough analysis reveals greater levels of complexity.

Information control is not an ambition confined to authoritarian regimes; issues of media monopoly, censorship, and the filtering of alternative views in mainstream media are indeed important issues that “democratic” states face. It is the bluntness with which authoritarian regimes implement information control particularly with Internet communications that arouses such close scrutiny. But authoritarian regimes do not exist in a vacuum, nor does the technology used to implement Internet censorship in these countries. In fact filtering technologies are manufactured in “democratic” countries and sold regimes that censor their citizens. While censorware companies profit from human rights violations free speech supporters as well as the media are silent. Worse, some act as apologists for the censorware corporations. It’s as if these companies have the right to profit from the tyranny we decry but instead of holding them responsible we let them off without criticism or confrontation. I find it unsettling that “democratic” countries support brutal regimes abroad, often because they are allies (e.g. in the war on “terrorism”) or because they can be profitable and only advocate democracy and free speech as a prescription to those regarded as enemies.

An often overlooked and so to be exposed fact is that censorware companies bear a lot more responsibility for Internet censorship than most acknowledge. Besides providing the technology and expertise for the implementation of Internet censorship, the censorware companies sell proprietary block lists that contain thousands, sometimes millions, of categorized URL’s. These lists are secret; there is no public review or oversight. Many schools, libraries, businesses and Internet café’s worldwide employ the use of these filters. Moreover, these lists are used to restrict the Internet use of citizens in countries that implement filtering at a national level. This has serious repercussions.

Not only are corporations in “democratic” countries facilitating censorship, they are complicit. Why is this being ignored? It’s not as if I don’t mention it in every interview, it just doesn’t make the cut.

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