We live in an interesting time, where it is possible to order your groceries, clothes, and video games without ever having to leave the safety of your home. These tasks are made easier because of the Internet. Twenty years after the software programmer Tim Berners-Lee wrote the code for the World Wide Web it has become the communication and information medium of choice.* Everyone imagines something different when they think about the Internet due to the different activities it is used for. Some people view it as a multimedia haven, some gush at the opportunities it will afford them to complete homework assignments and for young adolescent boys it serves as a makeshift girlfriend. One of the early nicknames for the Internet was the information superhighway as it provided the average person with fast access to practically limitless amounts of data. Many Internet users find the net to be just that; a conduit for easily assessable information, while others discover that it has some major roadblocks in the form of censorship.
The issues associated with Internet censorship are similar to those for censorship of more traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, books, music, radio, television, and films. One extremely large difference is that national borders are more permeable online. Residents of a country that bans certain information can find it on websites hosted outside the country, like online gambling.* Thus, censors must work to prevent access to information even though they lack the physical or legal means they use methods that are unique to the Internet, such as site blocking and content filtering. As with any political topic, the debate over Internet censorship has its extremes. The proponents of Internet censorship want strict control over this information medium. Censorship is not a new concept and most people have had information, images, or sounds censored from them whether they have known it or not. This leads the Internet to be the newest potential victim for censorship. Whether or not the Internet should be censored will continue to be debated for many years to come. The fact that the Internet is a permeable structure, as information seems to seep out of a boundary and travel, makes it that much harder to police. For example; a shooting in Kenya could be reported as it is happening before anyone has time to cover it up. The sheer freedom of the net has made it a safe haven for websites that are home to both useful and questionable material. It is because of the differentiation between borderlines and the structure that the Internet is built on that makes Internet censorship such a broad topic that covers many spheres throughout different cultures. As cultures tend to differ it is not surprising that censorship varies on a country-to country basis. There are countries that have little Internet censorship and others that may go as far as to limit the access of information such as news and discussion. There is a fundamental difference in the way censorship is executed throughout different countries. Laws, governments, and political ideologies differ vastly from one place to the next. Internet users currently have a limited scope in which they can operate and will only up more ground with the proposal of new laws that limit the net experience. The motivation behind censorship takes on a variety of forms. They range from protecting our children from unsuitable content to authoritarian attempts to control the minds of a nation. The reason given by a censor to block a web page is truly irrelevant as the end result is always the same; access is completely cut off.
Beginning of Censorship Laws
What do walkie talkies, digital photography, GPS systems and the Internet all have in common? They are all inventions of the military. The first documented evidence of the Internet began in the United States in 1969 as a network of four servers called the Advanced Research Projects Agency .*ARPA, a division of the Department of Defense, created the ARPANET for military research so that the information on the network would be decentralized and could survive a nuclear strike.* The network continued to grow in size and speed as technology increased over the next two decades. New innovations such as the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol for network transmission of data were added to make cyber travel more easily accessable. By 1990 the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, known more widely as HTTP, had been created to standardize the way in which Internet documents were sent and received. The APRANET had dissolved by 1994 and the Internet became a public network connecting more than 3,000,000 computers together worldwide.* Commercial organizations began to offer services over the Internet like online shopping. Today we have millions of companies that are offering products and services via Amazon, EBay and Overstock.com, and others. Though estimates vary, the consensus is that the amount of providers and users of the Internet has nearly doubled each year since 1987.* The unregulated information that the Internet provides began to create concerns with parents and politicians during the 90’s which has led to laws and bills to try to slow the free flow of information.
In 1994 Enough is Enough, a non-partisan, non-profit organization stepped into the ring with the goal of making the net safer for children and families. The executive director of EIE, Dee Jepsen, gave her testimony before the Senate and argued that the Internet made victims of everyone who viewed pornography.* A year later The Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act of 1995 appeared before the House and Senate. Though PCCPA was not achieved, the organization was successful in lobbying for a similar bill co-authored by Senator Jim Exon (Democrat).* This bill, named the Communications Decency Act of 1996, was passed as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.* The law stated that Internet service providers were accountable and legally liable for all content individuals posted online. The public naturally opposed the bills on the argument that it encroached on First Amendment rights.The Communications Decency Act went on to spawn and inspire new organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition. They formed to protect free speech and commerce on the Internet. The CIEC challenged the CDA by stating that the Internet is a unique communications entity and deserves first amendment protections.* The CIEC took their argument to the Senate and argued that by imposing broadcast-style content regulations on the open, decentralized Internet, the CDA severely restricts the First Amendment rights of all Indians and threatens the very existence of the Internet itself. Although well-intentioned, the CDA couldnever be effective at controlling content on a global medium, where a website in Sweden is just as close as a site in Boston. The CIEC case is based on the argument that the only effective and constitutional way to control children’s access to objectionable material on the Internet is to rely on the regulations the user creates for their self. Eventually, the CDA was seen as unconstitutional with Judge Stewart Dalzell stating:;
“The Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion.”
The U.S. government should condone self-regulation of the Internet with the use of user backed software and voluntary rating systems as a viable solution for keeping children away from indecent material on the Internet. The cause of the confusion over whether the Internet should be censored was fully demonstrated in the Supreme Court hearing on the CDA. This ignorance exists because people in general do not fully understand what exactly the net is. On a basic level, the net is a huge web of servers that interact and send and host information. These servers are bought, owned and maintained privately. If the servers are private, there ought to be no qualms about censorship. A way to describe the Internet to somebody that has no idea of its existence is to explain that the Internet is like a shape-shifter .I say this because people have different manners of using the net to achieve the desired stimulus they seek. The software engineer,the high school student, and the child in kindergarten all have a different way of engaging the net.
Dial Up Days to Pirate BaysThe Internet, much like our culture, has experienced numerous growing pains since its inception. Society never would have made it this far without some laws, but censorship is never useful to society. It is much better if we just have social agreements with one another to censor our own actions. For example, if public nudity was legal I doubt we would see many people running around naked because we have societal norms that dictate this is not the right thing to do. We do not need laws to be enforced upon us like we are a wild pack of wolves that cannot control ourselves. The Censorship advocates primarily target materials on the Internet that are deemed "obscene" or "offensive." These advocates tend to base their judgment on right-wing, conservative, and Christian ideology. Also, these decisions makers appear to be an older generation who have had the least amount of experience with the Internet. If we allow it to be completely free we would have severe issues with child porn, cyber bullying, and pirating. However, if we censor it we are actively prohibiting creativity, free speech and other beneficial components of the hyperspace. We cannot censor just because a few have abused the net in the past. Along this line of reasoning we might as well ban people from walking on the streets because some might commit a crime. There has to be a happy medium between the two views or we will forever fight an endless online battle that will put the bloodshed in World of War-Craft™ to shame.
The issues surrounding the Internet will not solve themselves naturally. In fact, the Internet demands something different from society in terms of how to properly operate it. We need to look beyond the lawyer’s scope, laws, and even societal norms. The net requires a broader set of rules and regulations that must be created and not just wished for upon a shooting star. Die hard Christians hoping that Moses will reappear to give us Internet commandments are dreaming. A requirement will be a significant regulator that will know what is needed and how to enforce it. Also, it will be necessary to understand how software, hardware and the code that makes up cyberspace allows it to regulate. If we are ever to truly solve this mystery, we will have to think outside the same box that we use to govern our own lives. Lawrence Lessig actually says it best:
“We can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental. Or we can build, architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear. There is no middle ground. There is no choice that does not include some kind of building. Code is never found; it is only ever made by us.”
Regulating does not have to mean a highly structured approach in which a company is subject to the bureaucracy and oversight of an agency to ensure that regulations are met. Those who hold interest in the Internet need to ask several questions. What values should be built into the space to encourage which forms of life? What values should or should not be protected? The values that are at stake here are substantive and structural. Our forefathers were fixated on the structure of government. The goal was to ensure the federal government did not become too powerful, so they built into the framework a system of checks and balances. This would allow that no one faction of government could overcome the others and over-reach its power on the states. The Bill of Rights assured us that the federal government would never remove the natural freedoms of speech, privacy and due process. As a bonus the bill promised that the commitment to these substantive values would remain despite the passing fancies of ordinary government. Thus the values, both substantive and structural, were entrenched through our constitutional design. Now these laws can be modified, but the process to make that happen is not only cumbersome, but very costly as well. Why do we not have rights this concrete and specific with the Internet? While I do not feel we are not ready to make the necessary, rational choices to push this issue along to fruition, I feel very negative about the government and lawmakers getting involved in the process and making the decisions for us. We are at a point in history where we must make fundamental choices about values, and the responsibility to make those choices must fall on us and us alone. The courts cannot decide for us because we are a legal culture and it is a bad idea for the courts to choose among heavily debated matters of values. Congress should not be invited to the decision making either because the end result would most definitely be a politically restricted answer. For example, in August, 2012 Congress chose to go on a five week recess with a 110 billion dollar budget crisis to solve.* They could barely get together a crucial budget and we would entrust them with governing the Internet!? Allowing congress to make these laws is like leaving the fat kid alone with a chocolate cake and expecting him not to eat it. We need a new type of governing body specifically custom made for the Internet and the Internet only.
If the Internet issues have shown us anything to this point, it is that we have no idea how to deal with the substance. We are left with more questions than answers. Will the net keep room for free speech? Will the net assure us privacy and access? Will the net allow us a free culture or a permission culture? These concerns are substantial and you could lose your mind thinking about them. We need to establish what kind of checks and balances we should use and what will be done to ensure that one regulator does not become too powerful. Then, we must guarantee that this regulator is powerful enough to fulfill its duties. These are concerns we have already dealt with as a nation, merely in a different form that has been brought to the cultural mainstream thanks to recent media attention.
Censorship Can Get Much, Much WorseThe Internet is on the cusp of inevitable censorship oppression and is losing the battle of freedom. Barriers are dropping everyday and it continues to lose ground as new censorship laws are concocted and proposed. The last ingredient this recipe needs is one big catastrophe to activate these proposed laws. Imagine a worm that would infect millions of computers and delete their data in seconds. Let us say this same worm can extract all the personal information off of a system such as driver’s license, credit card information, etc. All it would take is some evil genius with malware experience and sufficient free time to create this super worm. One has to wonder why it has not happened yet. The fact remains that while it has not yet occurred does not mean it is not a future worry. If this potential virus is unleashed it will give the government the final push it needs to turn the net into a regulatable entity.
The government believes that it has the right to withhold information from the public but it is wrong. The Internet is the information highway where anything is just a click away and yet the government wants to make freedom a restricted access area. To engage in the censorship of the Internet is an unjustifiable act; a declaration of war against a society of freedom. In Cyberspace, there is no physical war and suffering unlike in the world of the material and living. Cyberspace causes no harm to anyone when intelligence and common sense are used during its exploration. There are certain times when the judgment and the competence of those who use the Internet can be put into question, but the average user on the Internet has a tendency to use the web with competency and good judgment. The worst part is those who govern us believe that they are correct to censor and censorship is the only true way to achieve a land of peace and prosperity. The people of the Internet have no need for physical war and violence, so why try and censor them? The Internet users are currently the most powerful community on the planet. If this was not the case, then there would not currently be a plethora of laws crying for the end of their allegedly free society. If the government attempts to censor the Internet and its technological counterparts there would be many who would break through their fire walls and methods of blocking. Why the government would interfere with a peaceful society to start a war is beyond comprehension of the common man. It makes no true sense to interfere with that which works. The threats to national security do exist, yes, but that does not mean that the leaks provided by the Internet are not important to the common man. The government purposefully hides information about its proceedings from its citizens. When the government feels as though it is threatened it tends to try and shut down the threats. This should serve as even further motivation for our fight against censorship.
We Are All Affected
A message to those who do not believe the potential censoring of the Internet will not affect need look no further than the issues of file-sharing. File-sharing is one of the Internet’s most controversial regulations and can be historically linked back to the curious case of Napster. The Internet service, Napster, allowed its users to download music and other programs for free. It was originally founded as a pioneering peer-to-peer file sharing Internet service that emphasized sharing audio files, typically music, encoded in MP3 format. Napster may not have been ground zero of downloading files, but the multimedia industries are certainly different than they were pre-Napster. Every facet of media distribution has been affected by piracy, if not directly, then by the fear of piracy. The peer-to-peer, better known as P2P file sharing, is what allows users to download media files such as music, movies, games, and any other forms of media by using a P2P software client that searches for other connected computers. This system works by the “peer’s” computer systems connecting to one another and sharing files to allow users to download the files they want. The more people who have a piece of the file the faster it will download. Those who download files but do not share information are weeded out of the communities. It is as though these file-sharers have their own system and police themselves as the more you give the more you get. The fall of Napster was really a simple matter of location. The only thing that stopped Napster from being today’s version of Pirate Bay is the fact that they were located in the United States. U.S. copyright laws were able to stop them from expanding into something more. However, the torch has been passed to other sites that are more relentless and rogue then Napster could have ever dreamed to be. Companies that have tried to petition these sites to halt their activities have been met with resistance and, ironically, the law. Forbes magazine recently targeted piracy in an article entitled "You Will Never Kill Piracy, and Piracy Will Never Kill You", which has received over 3,600 re-tweets on Twitter, and nearly 10,000 shares on Facebook. The fact is if they were somehow able to spend the years and millions of dollars in legal fees and finally managed to kill the Pirate Bay, currently the most popular torrent site, there are still hundreds of other torrent sites that exist and more will surely spring up. If they ban torrents altogether the Internet will invent something new to allow file sharing to continue. Stopping illegal downloads is like trying to stop prostitution. Even if you get rid of the service the market will still be there. The desire or demand of something does not go away just because you remove it from the market. If people want something they will surely find a way to get it. The problem used to be Napster, these days it is torrents, and one can only fathom what the net will have to offer in another couple of years. Recently, a new site came under attack with the alias of Megaupload.com and was subsequently shut down. Why should people care that a torrent site was shut down? This was one of the larger torrent sites on the net and claimed fifty million hits daily. Fifty million hits is about a quarter of what Google does in a day so this take down is particularly interesting. Megaupload is not merely a housing space for illegal downloads either; there are a lot of homemade, perfectly legal files that were lost in translation with the shut down. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people used the site to share research data, work documents, personal video collections, and much more. When the feds made the shutdown official many Megaupload users howled on Twitter that they could no longer access their files and implored the feds to return their possessions. The best way to view this situation is picturing Megaupload as a big storage locker where people keep their heirlooms, gold, etc. Criminals may be using these same lockers to keep to drugs, stolen jewelry and other illegal objects, but that does not make it okay to shut down all the lockers. If the authorities stumble upon the contents of an unlawful locker they move swiftly to incarcerate the criminal responsible for the illegal items it contains, which is a move most of us would agree with as being proper law execution. However, the authorities would never make an extreme move like shutting down an entire storage company because of the acts of a few. Yet, here we are watching thousands of people having their assets seized because they are grouped together with these so called criminals. Thousands of artists, programmers, and creators were legally making a business from downloads of these files and will have to find new solutions for hosting their files at a reasonable cost. The same content creators that the Recording Industry Association of America Motion Picture Association of America claim to protect. If these associations are not getting money from you they feel no need to protect you and they have shown that they will not hesitate to shut you down either. There is a group of people who do similar things as the RIAA and the MPAA in the real world and they are referred to as the mafia. They have a similar way of doing business as well; pay us for protection or you will wake up to a horse head in your bed.
Privately, I predicted SOPA would fail and not pass. This is largely because I am familiar with the ideas of Jacques Ellul & Herbert Marcuse and their negative critique on the advancement of technology as how it serves to be a means of domination, control, exploitation, or more generally something which threatens the survival of humanity. The fact of the matter is that these laws will not actually stop piracy. These legislation's are aimed at requiring private U.S. entities to enforce restrictions against foreign sites but they do nothing against the infringement of itself. Just prior to the attacks the founder of Megaupload, known as Kim Dotcom, had just introduced a new service called Mega Box. MegaBox would offer a service that allowed artist to sell their creations directly to consumers and they would keep 90% of the profits to while doing it! A business structure like this would have rivaled the Universal Music Group and could have potentially culminated in the end of the company. In addition, a service called MegaKey was going to be offered as well that allowed artist to earn income from users who downloaded music for free. The founder known as Kim Dotcom said the model for MegaKey had been tested and was indeed a viable business model. Ironically, within the few short weeks that followed these announcements, Megabox and Megakey met their demise. Yes, this sounds like the type of conspiracy theory you would hear from the local crazy man that stands on the street corner barking at dogs and wearing a foil helmet. The timing of the shut down is a little suspicious especially given that Mega Upload had begun to acquire legitimate partners in the form of 7digital, Gracenote, Rovi and Amazon. I said at the beginning of this paper we should not be sacrificing privacy and due process to protect our networks and here we sit watching that transpire.
Worldwide Censorship needs to be deniedThe Creation of new laws to censor the Internet, like the CDA, are simply an egotistical attempt to enforce laws that would not be acceptable on a global level. The CDA tried to regulate the entire Internet in one outrageous mandate. Think about the United States enforcing laws in foreign countries. This would be absurd because the United States does not have jurisdiction in foreign countries. It would be unreasonable to assume that those living in foreign countries would live under United States laws and vise versa. For example, it is perfectly legal to sell marijuana in Amsterdam under the proper conditions, but it is illegal to do so in the United States. It would be considered preposterous if the U.S. Congress were to approve a law restricting marijuana use around the globe because other nations are outside of the jurisdiction of the United States. If the United States attempted to enforce anti-marijuana laws in Amsterdam it would create an international incident. The government of the United States cannot rightfully, or practically, enforce any law that would affect the entire world. And so we have stumbled on a huge paradox of limiting the unlimited world of the net.
We do not currently see the Internet as anything but a common good for us, but eventually we will question its motives and then we will have to see how we plan to reply. Of course nobody sees this day coming. The freedom of the net is simply taken for granted. Too many people see these freedoms as natural and unaffected by outside forces. Those people need look no further then China to realize their ignorance may soon be exposed. China currently operates the entity we know as “The Great Firewall of China.” This is supposed to be some kind of running joke because they already have another wall to keep out Mongolians and such. Anyway, the Chinese government has taken an increasingly aggressive stand against behavior in cyberspace that violates real-space norms. Onlookers of pornography get ten years in jail while critics of the government get the same. In order to attain that completely rational and justified jail time the person must first be caught. That means the net has to be regulated to catch these criminals in the first place. What is the best way to do this? The Internet providers play a very large role in providing the government with the information. Widely known Blue Chip companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are helping the Chinese government acquire the data so they can continue their reign of Internet terror. Let us say you want to download something illegally here in America. You begin by logging onto Google at your local library. Then if you were to do a search for illegal downloads Google would inform you that the results had been filtered and it would give a copyright act at the bottom of the page. However, if you lived in China these results would not only be filtered and removed the results would not even indicate that they had been tampered with by the search engine. In fact, Google has promised the Chinese to build a specialized structure so that the results will always be filtered by censors. Here is the perfect dance of commerce with government. Google can build the technology the Chinese need to make China’s regulation more perfectly enabled, and China can extract that talent from Google by mandating it as a condition of being able to participate in China’s ever so growing market. Google would be foolish to say no to China’s request to help them as they are a publicly shared company with the goal of making a profit. The point here is that commerce has a purpose and the government can always exploit it to their own end. This will contribute to the changing scope of the net sooner rather than later.
It is certainly not desirable for more countries to wall themselves off from the rest of the wired world. If a one world Internet becomes our predominant Internet policy objective, it puts America in a precarious position. On one hand, we will want to continue to engage in international discussions about the future of the Internet to ensure the free flow of online ideas and digital commerce. However, if we bend over backward to prevent this segregation at all costs, we will be forced to negotiate deals that balance the desires of control-hungry states with our own principles and priorities. This, as we all know, is a recipe for disaster. At some point we must be prepared to take our ball and go home. If the rest of the world wants to drive the Internet off the cliff and straight into the fiery pit of centralized regulatory control America does need not be along for the ride. Nor do we even need to be in the room with them if such a conversation is being negotiated. However, when the rest of the world falls to censorship laws and we are the last ones standing do you really believe that will not affect us in some way? We have to do our best to stop all forms of censorship around the world in order to stop censorship from affecting us. This is something that has already been set in motion and will be near impossible to reverse.
The Internet is an unprecedented medium of information exchange which will continue to revolutionize the way in which people work, play, and socialize. We are currently witnessing a worldwide attempt at Internet regulation and we are sitting back and waiting for some kind of last minute, Tim Allen-Christmas-miracle to swoop in and solve all our problems. This is an issue of public policy that will not go away and censoring the Internet would be a terrible disservice to current and future generations of Internet. I know when content is censored lawmakers are just trying to protect you, however, no matter which way you spin it you are always stifling education, free speech and advancement when you try and stop this great invention from being all that it is meant to be. We stand at an important political crossroads where the public decisions we make as a community about how we allow Internet architecture to develop will have a huge bearing on the development of cyberspace and therefore our rights and person hood in cyberspace for the hereafter. Governments and vested interests will eventually figure out the net and effectively regulate it, like they have every other social revolution since the peasants’ revolt of Wat Tyler's time. We should have seen this coming . The fact that people are a regulatable entity should have revealed to us that anything we create is regulatable by extension. This does not mean we should sit back and let it happen. Cyberspace is the last free land and it is nothing short of a crime against humanity to try and repress it. Censorship of the Internet is a detriment to the stability of a free society and needs to be fought off like the disease it is.
Rishabh Goswami is an undergraduate computer science student at Ashoka University. Rishabh previously worked with Mahmudabad Estate and currently working as a data analyst intern at Adobe Inc.