Web censorship not restricted to foreign countries

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OTTAWA (CUP) –– The Internet is, in many ways, the last and most essential of censorship frontiers. Despite the fact that total censorship is extremely difficult in online environments without complete government control, the issue is vital to consider as regulatory agencies and corporations continue to exert influence over how consumers access the web.

In some countries, such as North Korea, Venezuela and the People’s Republic of China, Internet censorship is pervasive and crippling. This can have devastating effects on citizens’ ability to communicate with each other and the world, whether it is for social, humanitarian or religious reasons. During the recent protests in Egypt, the government of Hosni Mubarak enacted a near total blackout of Internet access for common citizens.

The one network that remained unblocked, Noor Advanced Technologies, continued to provide limited service to large corporations, ministers, banks, the stock exchange and select five-star hotels. This not only made it difficult for protesters to document their experiences and report human rights violations to the world, but it also made it a challenge for citizens to organize themselves or request assistance in obtaining food, water or medical attention.

Internet blocking is not simply a threat in distant regimes and overseas nations – it is a reality in North America as well. A proposed law in the United States would grant the president similar powers – that is to say, the ability to shut off or severely limit Internet access entirely for a period as long as 120 days at a time. Modelled after Chinese policies, the Cybersecurity Act of 2010 is touted as a measure to be used in case of a large-scale cyber attack, but in reality it could have devastating effects on citizens' freedoms.

In Canada, Internet censorship is allegedly nominal – but extremely problematic in its application. Project Cleanfeed Canada identifies child pornography sites and transmits this information to Internet service providers, who voluntarily block them. However, lists of websites blocked by ISPs are not publicly reported; this information is not available to consumers and there is little control over what websites an ISP may choose to block. Without limitation or accountability policies in place, ISPs could very easily add non-pornographic websites to blocking lists without the knowledge of the public in order to cater to corporate or government interests.

The practice of pseudonymity and the availability of data havens help preserve freedom online. Data havens, which are essentially freely held and usually unregulated data refuges, break down national borders and enable whistle-blowing organizations – such as Wikileaks – to continue to operate despite government efforts to shut them down. Proxy websites, virtual private networks and anonymizer software offer similar solutions.

These practices enable software distribution and freedom of speech in countries where censorship laws prevent the publication of certain kinds of materials or opinions. In less revolutionary terms, virtual private networks and their offspring can be used to access entertainment content that is only available in some regions – think Hulu.

While Canada is not nearly as bad as places like Egypt, Internet censorship is a global concern that must be actively discussed between citizens, governments and corporations. Because whether you’re posting bad poetry on your anonymous blog or organizing a revolution, freedom of expression and freedom of access are critical social issues.

Chelsea Edgell

Fulcrum (University of Ottawa)

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