Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Internet censorship a step closer after Pirate Bay is blocked

Internet censorship in Britain is moving closer to a model adopted by countries like China with ISPs being forced by a court order to block the file sharing website Pirate Bay. Sky, Everything Everywhere, TalkTalk, O2 and Virgin Media must all prevent their users from accessing the site. The move has been applauded by the recording industry, but some have criticised the ban saying it marked a "slippery slope towards Internet censorship".

The court order to shutdown access to the file sharing website comes on the back of a Daily Mail campaign which calls on the government to force ISPs to block pornography and only allowing access on an opt-in policy.

"Pointless and Dangerous"

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, called the move "pointless and dangerous". Talking to the BBC, Killock said the calls for greater censorship would grow. "It will fuel calls for further, wider and even more drastic calls for Internet censorship of many kinds, from pornography to extremism," he said. "Internet censorship is growing in scope and becoming easier. Yet it never has the effect desired. It simply turns criminals into heroes."

However, a spokesman for the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) said it was a victory for artists and musicians who they say have lost millions of pounds because of illegal downloads. BPI's chief executive Geoff Taylor said, "The High Court has confirmed that The Pirate Bay infringes copyright on a massive scale. Its operators line their pockets by commercially exploiting music and other creative works without paying a penny to the people who created them. This is wrong - musicians, sound engineers and video editors deserve to be paid for their work just like everyone else."

In a statement Virgin Media said they would comply with the order. "As a responsible ISP, Virgin Media complies with court orders addressed to the company but strongly believes that changing consumer behaviour to tackle copyright infringement also needs compelling legal alternatives, such as our agreement with Spotify, to give consumers access to great content at the right price." Some ISPs have yet to comply. BT have requested "a few more weeks" to consider their position on blocking the site. A BT spokesman said the firm was in "discussions" with the BPI and hoped "to announce an outcome acceptable to both of us soon". [BBC / Sky]

"Who Controls the Internet?"

The changes and proposals being seen in recent months have alarmed freedom advocates. Recently the UK government put forward proposals to monitor the Internet with an all invasive scrutinisation of email, social networking activity and other browsing data. It has led some to suggest that Britain was moving ever closer to a China style Internet where websites considered pornographic or over political are blocked and other Internet activity is heavily monitored or censored.

In their book, "Who Controls the Internet?", the authors Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu quote law professor Peter Yu, who warns, "the question is no longer how the Internet will affect China. It is how China will affect the Internet." China's Internet policy is reflected in a statement made by president Hu Jintao in early 2007 when he said he aimed to "purify the Internet environment" and "ensure that one hand grasps development, while one hand grasps administration." China has long been pushing acceptance of its policy on the international plane in several ways.

China's goal

China's goal is to increase its control over critical Internet resources. China is among the leaders in lobbying for a UN organization to take over regulation of the Internet from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Many other countries have supported this proposal, including the European Union and Brazil, the site of an important Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting in November 2007. This proposal has alarmed human rights advocates who have seen the negligent attitude of the UN toward human rights abuses.

While Chinese demands were dismissed at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003, where the IGF was created as an agreeable alternative to a UN institution such as International Telecommunication Union (ITU), China succeeded in restoring "management of critical Internet resources" (DNS root servers and IP addresses) to the agenda of a subsequent IGF meeting in Brazil.

"Proposed norms"

China has pursued a policy to create an adoption of proposed norms. The government-endorsed Internet Society of China conducted a workshop at the Athens meeting of the IGF in November 2006, at which "A Proposed Framework of World Norm of Internet" ("World Norm") was circulated. In the document it states, "Anyone has the rights to contribute true and trusty information to others via Internet."

"The openness of Internet should never be utilized for any harmful purpose to users" and "any kinds of unhealthy content...should be forbidden" the document states. "Users should never violate the regulation for secured, trusty and efficient use of the networks." The proposal also articulates the need for an organization under the UN to handle Internet related disputes and a permanent mechanism under the UN to generate governance proposals.

"Right to freedom of opinion and expression"

In a contrasting view, Article 19 of the UDHR states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

But in recent years a number of democratic countries have adopted measures to censor and restrict Internet access on the grounds of national security, law enforcement, restricting the dissemination of illegal pornography, particularly child porn, and copyright infringement.

Defending censorship

Chinese government officials present the Chinese approach to Internet censorship as entirely benign. China's Representative to the UN Permanent Mission in Geneva, Yang Xiaokun, reacted to statements that China arrests journalists by explaining that "there are criminals in all societies and we have to arrest them. But these are legal problems. It has nothing to do with freedom of expression." China has shown a willingness to defend its filtering regime in the international arena. "Our approach is to balance development with security. It is necessary to respect the need for the security of Internet content according to the law," Yin Chen, the director general, department of foreign affairs, ministry information industry told an IGF meeting in Athens in 2007.

In a rare briefing, the supervisor of Internet Affairs for the Information Office of the Chinese State Council, Liu Zhengrong, did not dispute that China operates a firewall to protect the Chinese Communist Party against challenges to it from within and without. He described that system as "in compliance with the international norm," and explained that US newspapers reserve the right to delete or block harmful content from their reader discussions online, US companies regulate employee Internet use, and the US government under the USA PATRIOT Act monitors Websites and email communications for harmful information online as well.

Models and technology

China's attempt to persuade the UN or other bodies to adopt a singular approach to controlling the Internet may have failed in terms of establishing regulations. But China's model for Internet censorship has served to provide a model which other countries have begun to adopt.

There is an ironic twist in that much of the technical infrastructure used in the Great Firewall of China, or Golden Shield Project, was mostly supplied by US technology companies. China has refined the use of this technology and supplied this to other countries in the Middle East and across Africa. But the West which has observed the effectiveness of this technology, is now beginning to use it to build its own system of censorship and surveillance.


China's justification is one of protection of its citizens from "harmful content" that could upset the "harmonious society". This encompasses not only pornography, but also any political content which could upset the status quo. The stated justification in the West is in some ways little different. The political content it currently restricts mostly targets racist, extremist or far right wing propaganda. In Germany, content connected to neo-Nazi groups is banned. Racist comments on Twitter or Facebook has landed individuals in jail in Britain. Earlier this year Megaupload was shutdown for infringing copyright on a vast scale, though it may have had as much to do with tax evasion and other financial crimes.

Whether the blocks, monitoring and restrictions are justified is a matter of opinion. Some argue that the Internet should be entirely unrestricted. However, there are strong arguments for censorship when there are individuals or groups disseminating extreme material. The danger is that such censorship can spread from being a justified necessity to a far more invasive phenomena. [See also: Journal of International Media & Entertainment Law - PDF / Does China Hope to Remap the Internet in its Own Image? WPFC - GDocs]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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