Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Censoring the Internet

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about censoring the Internet.

Back when the Net was a lot younger, someone famously said that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. He was wrong, of course – some countries’ citizens can’t read about material their governments don’t want them to, or not without technical workarounds that are beyond many Net users.

And, even in liberal democracies like New Zealand, there are limits to free speech on the Internet. If you publish objectionable material – child porn and the like – on the Internet here, expect to be prosecuted.

Read on for my speaking notes or listen to the podcast and hear what I really said.

Q: OK! So tell us about censoring the Internet. Is it possible?

A: Of course it’s possible. The Internet exists in the real world. People who do things on the Internet are real people in the real world and they can be held to account in real courts and even locked up in real jails.

Q: Does that happen?

A: You bet. In Myanmar, people have been locked up for owning an unlicensed modem and died in jail.

Q: OK, but that’s not New Zealand.

A: Of course not. But there are cases here of people doing things on the Net and being held accountable for them – as they should be. There was an online defamation case here several years ago, for instance.

My point here is that online isn’t different. If it’s illegal to publish something on paper its probably illegal to do it on a website. It may be harder to find people who post to websites than who print anonymous handbills, but I for one wouldn’t rely on it.

Q: So you aren’t anonymous on the Internet?

A: It just seems that way. If you are very clever and technically savvy you might be able to completely hide your identity, but even then an expert might be able to find you. My advice is do not assume that you can’t be traced in the real world from the footprints you leave online.

Q: But in other countries you can get into trouble for expressing your opinions in your blog.

A: Yes, you can – and those are the countries where you can get into trouble for expressing opinions full stop – not just on the Internet.

Q: How do these countries keep an eye on the Internet?

A: Yes, it must be quite a problem for them. One wag, back in the 90s, said that the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. And the structure of the Internet is such that its not easy to control access to parts of it.

Imagine you are the kind of government who would like to control all political speech in your country – like in Orwell’s 1984, you don’t want it to even be possible to express a negative idea. So – how to deal with the Internet?

Q: Don’t allow the Internet at all!

A: That’s an approach run by a very few governments – Myanmar, for instance, or Cuba until very recently. But the Internet is such an engine of economic growth – and even if you don’t care about your citizens, you need them to earn money so you can buy machine guns and single malt whiskey. That’s a bit flippant of course – let’s just assume that you want to run a country with more control than unfettered democracy gives you, but you do want to improve the lot for your citizens. Then you really need to figure out a way to harness the Internet for your own needs, so that you can keep competitive with everywhere else that is already using it.

Q: How do governments manage to balance that?

A: They do a number of things. First of all, if you’re the kind of government that likes to control people’s ability to express opinions, you will already have a body which does that. Call it the Ministry of Truth, if you like. When the Internet arrives, or rather when you decide to let it in, you need to buy some computers for the Ministry of Truth and probably give it some more staff. Then, you keep a damn good eye on what’s going on inside your country. Google can help here. You allow people to set up Internet cafes – after all, there’s no way your population is going to rich enough for most of them to afford computers and the telecoms probably aren’t good enough anyway. Then you license the Internet cafes and keep a close eye on them as well.

Q: What about people getting in undesirable ideas from outside the country?

A: Well obviously that’s a problem you have to address. First of all, you have to make sure that people can’t easily get to the Internet except through the part of it you control.

Q: How?

A: Ban all satellite dishes and make sure that no-one can dial out of the country using a modem – you can use technical measures for that. Then you need to control your part of the Internet. And the best way to do that is through forcing all Internet traffic for your country to pass through a single gate which you control.

Q: How does that work?

A: It doesn’t allow access to specific sites. It probably looks at all email traffic passing through as well, and prevents people from using mail servers which are overseas so you can’t control them. There are examples in several countries, but probably the most famous is the so-called great firewall of China, or Golden Shield as its called there. That’s what prevents most Chinese Internet users from seeing sites that might carry ideas that China deems unsuitable.

Q: What sites does it block?

A: Quite a few actually. Wikipedia, of course – anyone can edit that and there might be all kinds of things that are deemed unacceptable on it.

Q: How accurate is Wikipedia, anyway?

A: Accurate enough apparently that Western journalists have demanded access to it when in China covering the Olympics! But even if it wasn’t accurate, that fact is that it represents nothing more not less than a pile of ideas. You can’t afford to allow unfettered to access to that kind of thing if you want to manage what you population is exposed to.

Q: What else is blocked in China?

A: The BBC, of course. I’ve no idea whether Radio New Zealand is allowed in – perhaps someone can tell us, but I wouldn’t recommend they use the Internet to do that from inside China. Anything that discusses the Tiananmen Square protests is blocked. So is anything about democracy or freedom of speech, the Dalai Lama, and huge blogging sites like or

Q: Can’t they just get this through Google?

A: Google has done a deal with the Chinese authorities not to index sites that are banned in China. So Chinese citizens who use Google and search on, say Tiananmen Square, will probably never find out about what makes that location infamous in other countries, because none of those hits will show up for them.

Q: Why does Google do that?

A: Why indeed? Google has been widely accused of selling out for that decision. Google says it’s because the alternative is for Chinese people not to have access to the greatest search engine in the world.

Q: You don’t buy that?

A: I’m sure it’s true. It would be equally true to say that the alternative would be for Chinese people not to have access to the biggest online advertiser in the world. There are more Internet users in China than there are in the USA. And Chinese web surfers will include all China’s burgeoning middle class. That’s a big and growing source of online advertising revenue which I’m sure Google’s shareholders would find it hard to ignore. It’s not just Google, either. Yahoo has signed a voluntary pledge to rid it’s Chinese website of all materials that the government might disapprove of. And Yahoo provided the Chinese with the information they needed to track down a dissident in 2005, resulting in him being jailed.

Q: Is it just China that tries to control the Internet?

A: No, that’s just the biggest example. Iran does. Saudi Arabia does. Syria, North Korea of course. Tunisia. Singapore does. The thing is, these countries are cutting themselves off from the potential benefits of the Internet – the innovation without having to ask permission which is what makes the Internet so great. Lots of these countries block Skype, for instance, presumably because people might have conversation they can’t control with it, but the effect is to keep the cost of international phone calls in and out high. And that’s a barrier to trade as well as to social discourse. And there have been instances of Youtube being blocked selectively in countries when people have posted videos that the government found unacceptable. An example is Thailand – not normally seen as a repressive state, but for a while there was a video critical of the Thai royal family on Youtube and the whole site was blocked as a result.

Q: Do all countries block the same material?

A: There are themes – lots try to block pornography, and many try to block unacceptable political or religious ideas. But the one thing that all countries which censor the Internet block is discussion of censoring the Internet!


As always, you can discuss this broadcast at

New York Times on geeks inheriting the Earth.

The perils of owning a modem in Myanmar.

Wikipedia on the Great Firewall of China and Internet censorship in general.

Google’s apologia for censoring itself in China, and Yahoo getting someone in China jailed.

posted by colin at 11:55 am  

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