The meaning of ‘censorship’ – by “Michael N”

We in the United States are not accustomed to Internet censorship.  We all know that there is material that cannot be legally posted online, for various reasons; few still believe in an absolutely unregulated cyberspace.  Traditional laws still apply; whatever is illegal offline is probably illegal online as well.  Laws concerning libel, copyright infringement, obscenity, and more apply to the Internet because they apply in general.  We accept the existence of these types of laws, to the extent that even if we disagree with them, we do not generally consider them “censorship”.

Other countries have differing laws.  What would be free speech in the West might be considered subversion in China, and illegal.  That is to say, if someone in China published the same material, they might be subject to penalties.  Distribution of the material might also be prevented or stopped.  We would consider this censorship.

But even in Western countries, standards are not uniform.  It is well known that British libel law is quite different from the American variety; the burden of proof is on the defendant, for example.  (This kind of inconsistency has led to libel tourism.)  We might say that this constitutes a form of censorship.

However, the term “Internet censorship” means something different; it has come to mean “blocking”.  This is probably because the countries most interested in suppressing free speech also try to prevent their citizens from accessing certain material from the outside.  Since an authoritarian regime has no power to prevent publication outside its borders — it cannot enforce its censorship/subversion laws against someone outside its jurisdiction, nor shut down an outside website at its source — it may resort to technical measures that prevent users from accessing the material.

Both internal censorship and blocking took place in China recently in response to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, and this is common practice with many sensitive issues in that country.  Presumably, nothing similar would ever happen here.

Yet the character of the proposed Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) — even the amended version — has many people not only concerned, but outraged.  Some of the criticism comes from prominent Internet engineers, partly on ideological grounds, but also because of the technical methods that the bill would require — namely, interference with the domain name system.  I am not qualified to comment on their fears of a fragmented global DNS, but I suspect that a system could be devised to blacklist sites in the U.S. using other means.

There are already legal procedures to take down U.S.-hosted sites’ copyright-infringing content.  So what is new is the proposed blocking of non-U.S.-hosted sites.  A good candidate would probably be The Pirate Bay, which the bill’s language almost seems tailored to fit.

Would blocking be completely effective?  Of course not.  Would it reduce piracy?  Maybe.  Do I support the legislation?  No.  Would a blocking regime against sites “dedicated to infringing activities” really cause that much harm?  Who can say for sure?  An examination of Wikipedia’s rundown of Internet filtering policies shows that plenty of “free” countries engage in some degree of blocking, though usually not in response to copyright infringement.

Censorship is a strong word in a free society.  The mere fact of some sort of filtering of Internet content does not, in my view, constitute censorship.  The key is in the decision of what, precisely, to disallow.  Some present the slippery slope argument, with such rhetoric as:

Once the Attorney General has a system set up for censoring the Internet, everyone who has a problem with a website will want to get in on it. How long before it’s expanded to block Wikileaks, pornography, gambling, anarchists, supposed terrorists, and anybody else the Attorney General doesn’t like that day?

While this may be true, it isn’t necessarily so.  We would do well to remember that at the end of the day, it’s not dissenting political views that we’re talking about blocking, but unauthorized distribution of copyrighted works.  We should not take for granted the freedoms we enjoy, and it is right to oppose legislation which we disagree with or which subtracts from those freedoms.  But we would also do well to recognize what real censorship is, and not to confuse it with something more trivial.  To be sure, I think that blocking content is bad policy.  But it’s also important to be reasonable, and to save the polemics for when they are really needed.

Coffee and Filthy Words – by “Frances D”

I didn’t drink coffee until the end of high school. I had actually listened when my mom said, “Coffee will stunt your growth.”  Even though I was staying up late and waking up early, I wanted to be tall.  Put more articulately, I didn’t want to artificially constrain my growth.1 I feel similarly about language and culture, which develop through fluid, indirect, and subtle means.  Likewise, efforts to control verbal expression only artificially hamper the development of culture. Any legislative attempt to create a list of inappropriate words is like coffee to language—it stunts growth.

In FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to regulate the afternoon radio broadcast of George Carlin’s monologue “Filthy Words.” 2 Its indecent content was broadcast during a time of day when children might overhear. What exactly made this 1,751 word monologue so offensive? To illustrate, I’ve removed the filler – the acceptable words of polite language – this is left3, 4:

Fuck…bitch…bitch…bastard…hell…damn…shit…piss…fuck… cunt…cocksucker… motherfucker…tits…fuck…motherfucker…fuck…cocksucker…sucker…cock…cock…cock…cock…cock-fight…shit…fuck… shit… shit… shit…shit…shit…Shit…shit… shit…shit…shit…shit …shit…shit…shit…shit…shit-house…shit’s… shit… shit… shit… shit…shit-eating…shit-eating…Shit…shit …Shitty… shitty…shitty …shit-fit…Shit-fit…shit…shit… shit… shit…shit… shit… shit… shit… shit…shit…Shit… shit-load …shit-pot …Shit-head… shit-heel… shit … shit…shit-face…shit…shit-face…Shitface …shit…fuck …fuck…Fuck. …Fuck…FUCK FUCK…FUCK…fuck …fuck…fuck…fuck…fuck… fuck…fuck…Fuck …fuck…Madfuckers…fuck …Fuck… fuck  …fuck…fuck …fuck…fuck… shit …shit…shit. …shit…shit…shit …shit …shit …shit …shit…shit …ass…shit… …fart…turd…twat…Fart…tits… Turd…twat… Twat!… twat…Twat…snatch, …box…pussy…snatch…pussy…box…twat…ass …ass

This monologue was created to be offensive in 1975. Yet in its offensiveness, it betrays its temporal nature. True, some words are still considered incredibly rude, but many no longer pack the same punch as they did in the 1970’s. Words fall along an acceptability spectrum. Over time, American culture relocates words within the spectrum. While words such as “colored” have become unacceptable with time, many swear words have transitioned towards acceptable. This transition along the acceptability spectrum occurs in one of two ways. First, a general exposure to a word can accustom a society; this method led to butt, ass, hell, and damn to be generally accepted.  The second method is the reclamation of the offensive word by the offended group.  The gay community has successfully reclaimed the word “queer” from its historical roots as a derogatory term for gay males. “Queer” is so widely accepted now that few people bat an eye at the show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

The fluidity of language will be fettered by legislative attempts to define what is acceptable and unacceptable for broadcasting.  Supreme Court and lower court rulings in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation and FCC v. Fox Television Stations have created a foundation upon which government can control offensive language in broadcasting.  The only stipulation is that these regulations must not be as vague as the regulation contested in FCC v. Fox Television Stations.  This possibility for future legislation could quickly lead to television and radio broadcasting that are permanently stuck in the time period that the legislation’s last amendment; it would be as if current television could only air Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy–esque dialogues. Therefore, the Supreme Court missed a great opportunity in FCC v. Fox Television Stations—namely, the opportunity to create the foundation for cultural fluidity by overturning FCC v. Pacifica Foundation and declaring the regulations unconstitutional, instead of leaving the constitutionality to be determined by a lower court.

1) I’m aware now that coffee does not actually stunt growth. Looking back, I realize my mom probably just didn’t want to deal with a twelve year old hyped up on caffeine.

2) “Filthy Words by George Carlin.” UMKC School of Law. Web. 13 Oct. 2010. <http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/filthywords.html>.

3) No modification was done to the transcript besides replacing the polite words with ellipsis. All emphasis is original.

The Ultimate Showdown: Blumenthal v. Craigslist – by “Thad D”

“Seeking Partner In Crime”

“looking for fun”

“Looking for some ACTION!!!!!!”

Ranging from apparently harmless to incredibly graphic, the “Adult Services” section of Craigslist has long provided people far and wide with the ability to search for and find others looking for “adult services”, whatever that may mean.  That is, until last week, when Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, along with 17 other state attorneys general, told Craigslist to permanently remove their adult services section worldwide.

Before delving into the obvious issues with censoring Craigslist (net neutrality, questions of jurisdiction, website application immunity), it’s important to understand what Craigslist is and its history.  Founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark, Craigslist is a website that serves as a sort of virtual bulletin board for local postings.  With subdomains for major metropolitan areas around the world, users can post solicitations for anything from old TV’s, to job inquiries, to requests for relationships.  Listed as the most used classifieds service in any medium, Craigslist sustains its operating revenue mostly from small fees required to post job openings in major metropolitan areas.  The site’s annual net income is undisclosed.

However, the seemingly noble intentions of Craigslist have not stopped many from abusing its site.  For example, in early 2009, Julissa Brisman, a young masseuse, was murdered in a hotel room by a man who hired her through Craigslist.  Then, earlier this year James Sanders, a father and devout Christian, was gunned down in his home by criminals who responded to an ad he posted on Craigslist to sell his wife’s diamond ring. (Credit to NBC and NewsRoomJersey)

Three weeks ago, 17 state attorneys general jointly wrote to Craigslist telling owner Craig Newmark to permanently remove its adult services section worldwide.   Two weeks after that, four other private, Washington D.C. based non-profit organizations spoke out about their disapproval of the site’s adult services. In response, this past week Craigslist put a black and white “CENSORED” bar where the adult services hyperlink had previously been.  However, as of today, the black and white bar has officially been removed and there is no adult services section on the site’s home page.

Craigslist Adult Services Section Censored
Wait, You Didn't Want to Remove Your Adult Services Section?

So, now that we’re all on the same page, I would like to throw something out there: I believe Richard Blumenthal is putting up this huge front in order to be elected to the U.S. Senate.  What?  “No!” You cry out, “This cannot be!”  Well, consider the following conversation between two average voters:

Joe the Plumber: Gosh, the Senate election is coming up, soon.
Bob the Builder: Well, who’s running?
Joe the Plumber: Looks like it’s **Googles for ten seconds** Linda McMahon and Richard Blumenthal.
Bob the Builder: Wasn’t she a wrestler?  And who is Richard Blumenthal?
Joe the Plumber: I don’t know.  But apparently **Googles for five more seconds** Blumenthal is really against prostitution and human trafficking on Craigslist.  And Linda McMahon never said she didn’t like prostitution or human trafficking.  Looks like I know who I’m voting for.
Bob the Builder: I second that.  I am no fan of the Internets or prostitution.

Take it for what it is, that is my personal opinion.  Beyond the questions of political pandering and insincerity raised by the timing of his attack on Craigslist, Blumenthal’s offensive raises several other important issues.  Unfortunately, I do not have time to discuss all of them, but I would like to discuss what I think is the most important: net neutrality.

What do we mean when we use the term net neutrality?  Generally network neutrality means that for any network (be it peer to peer or the Internet), the principal service provider (i.e. Comcast, Charter), the government, or any other regulatory body should have no right to censor the content posted by members of the network.  In fact, the original design choices of this Internet such as decentralization and the FCC’s Broadband Policy Statement lend the Internet to being an open, neutral network.

Blumenthal and the attorneys general joining his suit are directly challenging the fundamentals of net neutrality by forcing Craigslist to remove its adult services section.  I want to make a very clear and unequivocal distinction.  Telling Craigslist it needs to seek out and remove postings soliciting illegal activities such as prostitution or human trafficking is NOT challenging net neutrality.  Without the rule of law, the Internet would become a safe haven for criminals and create an environment no one would feel comfortable entering.  However, Craigslist should not be told to remove a whole section because certain users abuse the site’s services.

If users demanded content controlled by a single source, with government interference and site material changing based on mere political whims, everyone would still be getting their Internet content from Compuserve.  Think I’m wrong?  Why do we have Google, Facebook, MySpace, Amazon, ESPN.com, streaming video of any sort (thanks porn industry), or all of the amazing web applications we have today?

For now, Blumenthal will not let sleeping dogs lie.  Although Craigslist has removed the whole adult services section Blumenthal insists, “Simply removing one portion of your site where you permitted and profited from prostitution ads is insufficient if ads go elsewhere.”  (Credit to The Associated Press)

Vinton Cerf, father of net neutrality and, the best thing it brings with it, competition on a previously unparalleled scale, we salute you.  Richard Blumenthal may be thinking that Craigslist is “thumbing their nose at the public interest”, but let’s be honest: since when did a 64 year old whose alma maters include Yale and Harvard ever represent the public interest?

The Power of Propaganda – by “Brian S”

Questions still remain about how aggressive the Chinese government is going to get in their crusade to censor all information available to their citizens (although, in an ironic twist of hypocrisy, they have recently accused Google of censorship).  The word “brainwash” comes to mind when one thinks of the behavior of the Chinese government towards its citizens; clearly the government’s goal is to keep their citizens from harboring any negative beliefs about their country, or knowing anything about their country’s dark past.  In America, where Glenn Beck calls the President a racist on national television and refuses to apologize, and where some 40% of the country agrees with him, this seems absurd at first blush.  But upon further reflection, one thing stands out: people believe what they are told.  People believe all sorts of political propaganda, for example, regardless of origin.  If the only images presented to the Chinese population are ones of a benevolent government, how will they know they are being lied to?  1984 comes to mind, naturally.

That said, will China bother to maintain their censors? For now, it seems they will.

Ways of bypassing the internet censorship include Tor and UltraSurf.  These programs re-route traffic through external IPs to avoid censors.  It is within the Chinese government’s power to block these IPs, but until recently they had not done so.  Tor was blocked in the days leading up to China’s National Day of October 1st, but UltraSurf remains unblocked, although it is apparently fairly easy to do so. Why?  One imagines China is aware of the tool, but perhaps the threat is sufficiently small.  A few thousand people among China’s billion-plus are hardly worth bothering about.  With UltraSurf available, users may not have incentive to find more devious ways to get around the censorship, which is exactly the sort of behavior the government wants to discourage.

As long as the truly objectionable sites are blocked to the public, and relatively few users are bypassing the censors in the first place, China need not worry. For example, China recently blocked a page called the Berlin Twitter Wall, a site which intended its users to share their thoughts and memories of the fall of the Berlin wall, but turned into mass criticism of the so-called Great Firewall of China.  But a small percentage of internet users use UltraSurf.  A very small percentage would read or post on a site like this.  The overlap must be essentially nil, and as long as it’s sufficiently small, it can cause only limited harm.

In fact, fostering a minority opinion is not even so bad for China.  One would not go so far as to deem it a goal of theirs, but having a minority opinion appear weak can bolster support for the majority opinion.  To this end, the Chinese government does need to ensure that the majority opinion lies in their favor, or at least seems to. China is effectively paying people to post opinions backing the government to make it appear as if most people support the government. Then, of course, more may be swayed and recruited to the bogus cause: the strategy is “fake it ’til you make it.”  And if enough lies are spread to enough people, it may be difficult for the people of China to know what to believe, regardless of how aware they may become of the other (true) side of the story (i.e. real history).  And if that happens, censorship is no longer necessary – much like the way propaganda works in the U.S. today.  Is Obama a hero or a villain?  It’s not clear.  Perhaps the Chinese government will find similar murky ground as a stepping stone on its quest towards a golden public image.

The Devil’s Advocate – by “Reynolds H”

Amongst Americans, internet freedom, is considered a basic human right.  The ability to access any information that is desired, to publish any free thoughts on any topic, and to freely criticize the authorities that govern are all written into a law which protects these freedoms.  It’s been instilled in everyone in our generation since the first stages of our education: freedom of speech.  But is the freedom of speech, especially via the internet, truly a basic human right or is it merely a luxury right, which Americans have become accustomed to so much that it is perceived in the same light as shelter, water, health, and nourishment?  Americans often express this desensitization to other scenarios by exclaiming that all countries policies should promote freedom in all aspects and citizens of those countries should expect no less than the same freedom grated to citizens in the United States.  The United States’ active encouragement of the rapid progression of freedoms in China, especially internet freedom, may be misguided, not allowing China to reach the steps necessary for the developmental path to achieve the level of freedom comparable with the United States.

The reason that citizens of the United States are able to enjoy the freedom of speech which they are guaranteed by law today is the stability of the social and government institutions within the country.  The stabilization of the government structure allowed citizens of the United States to trust that their government could survive and therefore be able to protect its citizens, leading to the stabilization of the social institutions, which then allowed for the cascade effect of the evolution of rights.  The government structure of the United States has had structure since its creation in 1776, which allowed for the normal development leading to the creation of a code of basic rights accepted into law, and eventually to the current system of freedoms enjoyed in the US.   From a more modern perspective, to a certain extent, the United States has enjoyed government stability since the end of the civil war in the 1860s, with little to no major governmental changes happening since then.  In this time, there have been major advances in the civil right of citizens, from the ending of slavery to the equal rights among men and women to the equal rights among race, with only recently (past 40 years) having achieved equal basic human rights for all citizens.  These advances in human rights came by a strong social approval across the nation and a banding together of people to enact change in the government, social disorder was used as a tool to create change in the laws governing the society.  This change, however, was only possible because of the strong structure of the government and the stability it held, allowing for large swings of social disapproval and disorder without the destruction of the country’s government structure.

China lacks the social order and strong government structure needed for the accelerated development of the human rights.  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not come into existence in its present form until the end of the 1950’s with the ending of the Chinese Civil War.  When it did assume power, the PRC inherited the poor governmental, social, and judicial institutions from the pre-civil war governance.  Even today, China is still tackling the attainment of the basic human rights for the majority of its citizens and the creation of a stable governmental structure.  Therefore the main goal of the PRC is to create and maintain social order and to build the government structure.

Recently the NY Times published an article about the proposed adoption of a registration requirement which would require users to register their real names, identification numbers, and information to access and comment on new sites.  When asked to comment, officials and state-connected academics in the information security field, argued that mandatory controls are necessary to help subdue inflammatory attacks, misinformation and other illegal activity deemed to endanger social order.  In another NY Times article, officials were asked to comment on the increase in proposed internet censorship and monitoring during 2009, a year which commemorates numerous anniversaries marking advancements and socially revolutionary events.  Reporters indicated that China had established a high level committee completely devoted to the maintaining of social stability.  Government censors have blocked over a thousand websites, closed liberal forums and blogs for, blocked access to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and cut off Internet service in locations with serious social instability, notably in the Xinjiang region of the west after deadly clashes between different ethnic groups, Chinese officials have defended that internet shutdowns were based on the grounds of national security.  The trend here is evident.  Although considered wrongful according to the western bias, one way of maintaining social order is internet and information censorship.  By eliminating sources which criticize the government, invoke social unrest and riot, and promote rebellion, the PRC government is trying to strengthen the internal social order which is necessary to progress to its steady stabilization.  To put it into plainer words, China is trying to get everyone on the same page, so that they can move on to the next step.  This may seem like backwards primitive thinking from an American biased perspective, but people must understand that the government responsibility is to provide protection for its citizens and in China’s case, that protection may come at the price of some of the freedoms of the citizens.

Once this social stability is steady, it allows for the creation of a better government, then for the stability of that government, thereby finally allowing for the social disapproval necessary to enact change in that government.   But if that social stability is never achieved, the cascade of processes leading to change cannot start. Plain and simple, despite the repression of the freedoms of the public, China may be doing what is best for their country for the long run.  Repressed freedom, and thus internet censorship may be the “evil means” to the beneficial end of the furthering of freedoms in China.

Censorship and Free Speech in China and Hong Kong – by “Charlotte M”

Growing up in Hong Kong, one quickly learns how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy freedom of speech, and the lack of censorship. It is one place where you still do see China’s method of “one country, two systems”: while in Hong Kong, we have access to uncensored internet and freedom of speech, China is not privy to the same access.

Access to uncensored internet doesn’t just make a country a better place by itself; instead, it provides its citizens with the tools and information they need for self-improvement. Take google.cn’s censoring of images when you search for “tiananmen square.” If, say, you’re a curious adolescent living in China, and you have taken an interest in China’s history, and particularly the Cultural Revolution, you might want to do some research about it. However, the information you will glean from an internet search (or likely from any sort of research you might undertake, as I have a sneaking suspicion that books painting the events of Tiananmen Square in a less-than-flattering light have been censored as well) will not give you an accurate picture of the events that occurred. How can one properly their history, or the current state of things, if attempts to learn about them are quashed by the government? Shielding the people from information about their own past, or their families, doesn’t protect or help anyone. Instead, it helps the Chinese government to deny their past, and instead of helping their people, it hurts them.

Hong Kong, however, is different. While google.com is redirected to google.com.hk, you can opt-out of the redirection, and search using the “normal” version of Google, thanks to the relative lack of censorship in Hong Kong. While just north Hong Kong, in China, you will not find information about Tibet’s desired cessation from China, Hong Kong enjoys enough freedom to have numerous “Free Tibet” protests.

However, Hong Kong is truly just a vestige of colonial rule. While the Sino-British Joint Declaration stipulates that the people of Hong Kong will enjoy the same rights and freedoms as they did under British colonial rule for at least 50 years after returning to Chinese rule in 1997, there is strong evidence that these freedoms will not extend beyond 2047. China’s influence, and desire to manage it’s people, is simply too great to allow the people of Hong Kong, who are of so much important to the surrounding region and to the world, to be so influenced by outside sources. Already, we have seen evidence of this;: in 2002, the government proposed Article 23 of the Basic Law, which would have prevented treason and subversion against the Chinese Government. This was met with great opposition, and because Hong Kong still maintains a separate (although highly influenced by China) government, the Article was not passed. Had it been passed, however, one would have seen changes to the internet similar to what is seen in China– very little that makes the Chinese government look bad.