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Freedom, Censorship, and the Internet


In a recent article on March 28th, the WSJ reports on the scope of censorship software produced by American companies that is used by sovereignties in the Middle East to block access to sites which contain content deemed objectionable.  The content in question could be cultural in nature or it could be political.


Should countries be free to censor the flow of information to their population based upon cultural ideals?  How about political ideals?  Its generally well accepted that there are certain things that should be censored no matter who or where you are(e.g. child pornography).  Yet, the line for moral reprehensibility is a vague and wavering one, however.

Facebook has come under fire for initially not taking down a page that promoted the third Palestinian intifada.  At first, the page promoted non-violent protest, but then quickly turned to inciting violent resistance(at which point Facebook removed the page).  This is a particularly interesting case because the Palestinian resistance is against an occupying power.  Does a group of people ever have a right to fight violently for their cause?  The revolution in Egypt was a great example of a peaceful regime change, yet, the innocent civilians of Libya who are being bombed by Gaddhafi surely have a right to violent insurrection to prevent further innocent deaths.  While, the ethics of violent insurrection is a much larger debate for another time, it becomes relevant when considering the ethics and morality of tools that promote such insurrection.

The United States, the alleged bastion of freedom and democracy, has spent $20 million in efforts to fight against international censorship that was committed using American software.  In other words, American has spent money to reverse “mal-use” of software it produced.  This is an interesting fact juxtaposed against the Obama administration’s swift moves to curtail information spread via the “Cablegate” debacle.  While the administration did not employ software to censor the information, they exerted pressure on several critical industry players(Amazon, paypal, mastercard) to shutdown the flow of information, which qualifies as censorship, nonetheless.  As well, there is a lot of evidence to suggest the adminstration used companies like HBGary Federal and Palantir technologies to form a technical offensive attack against Wikileaks.

A study was published recently by Freedom House, an American NGO, which ranked countries based on their “internet freedom”.  There were 3 criteria which were used to establish internet freedom: “obstacles to access”, “limits on content”, and “violations on users’ rights”.  Under these criteria, Estonia, the U.S., Germany, Australia, and the UK lead the way as the most free countries with respect to the internet.  Tunisia, China, Cuba, Burma, and Iran sit as the most internet-unfree countries.  So, Cuba is more restrictive than China and the US is more free than Germany?  I retabulated Freedom House’s numbers by excluding limits to access as a metric since that number could be affected by naturally restricting factors(e.g., geography) rather oppressive(authoritarian) factors.  By doing this, China drops into the 3rd most internet oppressive regime.  The top 5 free countries remain the same with only the UK being replaced by South Africa.

Considering, the Obama’s administration’s response to engine of transparency, wikileaks, I found this curious.   When looking at the Freedom House’s detail report for the United States, they minimize the impact of the administration’s response, and count the Patriot Act as the primary influence of users’ rights violations.  It should be noted that the Cablegate leak occurred on November 28, 2010, whereas this report was published on April 18th, 2011.

So when should it be ok for governments to censor?  Is national security a vague valid reason?

Another issue at play here is the moral responsibility the companies who make this software have.  There are legitimate uses to blocking software for home and corporate use.  Should software makers be held responsible if their software is used to suppress human and civil rights?  Should governments get involved and restrict export of this software to known governments known for censorship and human rights abuses?

Is censoring censorship software a form of censorship?  Is my pornography, your human rights abuse?

Its easy to label massive strokes of censorship, like the Great Firewall of China, as draconian, but what is the propaganda rationale held by the Chinese authorities?  Supposedly, a large reason is cultural preservation.  Interestingly, China has recently called out the United States, for American double standards regarding both human rights abuses and restrictions on internet freedom.  While at first glance this appears to be hypocritical, China’s case is not that far off.   They cite human rights abuses related to the failed global counter-terrorism missions abroad as well as the aforementioned restrictions placed on domestic internet following Cablegate.

In thinking about ways to implement a suitable form of censorship, democratic systems are often proposed.  However, its quite easy for democratic systems to be tyrannical as majority rule can box out a significant portion of the population.  As discussed further in this post of Slashdot, Facebook has been censoring content based upon large numbers of people “flagging” content as abusive of Facebook’s Terms of Service.  What’s been happening is that agenda-driven “mobs” organize to distributively flag content even when no such violation has occurred.  In many cases, Facebook has been blindly shutting down content based purely on these flags from its users.

In his post on SlashdotBennett Haselton discussed a potential solution for this problem.  While this problem is specific to Facebook, his solution can be extrapolated to the larger problem of societal censorship, and really decision(law) making as a whole.  The solution? Intelligent crowdsourcing.  Essentially, Bennett proposes a system of peer review similar to the American jury system where a jury pool of Facebook users is created, and then randomly selected from to evaluate a piece of flagged content.  Using some statistical techniques, the algorithm can steer clear of mob pressure and yet still be scalable for any sized system.

Censorship is a difficult question in complex and diverse societies.  It is ignorant to abolish all censorship whatsoever as some content can be physically and psychologically detrimental(child pornography; you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre).   As well, censorship lines must be attentive to cultural issues.