Posted at 04:49 PM ET, 06/27/2011

Web censorship moves to democracies


During World War II, letters like this one were censored. Now, censorship has moved to the Web. (Susan Biddle - The Washington Post)
Web censorship by governments such as Iran, China and countries embroiled in the Arab Spring has been well-documented.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said in a conference Monday that he thought governments’ restriction of new media was likely only to get worse in reaction to the protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

But new data and filtering schemes show an alarming trend by democratic governments and businesses to censor what’s online, too.

Turkey, Tunisia, and Australia have all announced plans in the past few weeks to introduce new filtering schemes. Danish police last week proposed abolishing all anonymous Internet access, arguing that they could more effectively fight terrorism if they had data from every person who accessed the Internet. And data released by the Google Transparency Report this week shows that government requests to take down information online have skyrocketed in a number of democratic countries during the past couple years.

Jillian York, director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, writes about the implications of the trend:

Internet filters ... have implications for freedom of expression ...
Blocking a certain type of content does not necessarily mean that such content ceases to exist; and in the case of child pornography, blocking may simply force such content ‘underground’ .... Most problematically, setting a precedent of blocking websites simply makes it that much easier for a government or ISP to extend filtering as they wish. While few might object to blocking child pornography, what happens when the filters go after politically sensitive content? Will anyone object then?

Australia’s government failed to introduce a mandatory filtering scheme recently, and several Australian Internet service providers decided to do the filtering on their own, blocking access to 500 sites. In Turkey, four layers of filtering from “standard” to “children” has resulted in the blocking of YouTube and WordPress, among other sites, because the content is insulting to “Turkishness.” Escort, gay, and marriageable are among the 138 words no longer allowed on the Internet in Turkey because they are “indecent” or “provocative,” according to the government.

New July-December 2010 data from the Google Transparency Report confirms the trend of increasing Web censorship in democratic nations. The data shows that governments such as Germany, the U.K., and Brazil, make thousands of takedown requests every year, and countries like India and Italy made specific requests to remove videos criticizing senior government members.

One example from the Google data is from Italy, whose Central Police requested in 2010 the removal of a YouTube video that criticized Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Italy last year also suggested classifying all Web sites as part of the press, which would allow the country to censor them. In February, the head prosecutor of the Amanda Knox murder trial in Italy successfully got a blog that was covering the trial taken down.

The Google Transparency Report data also shows that different law enforcement agencies in India asked Google to remove a blog and YouTube videos that were critical of chief ministers and senior officials of different states in 2010. Google did not comply. Google found that the number of content removal requests by the Indian government increased by 123 percent compared with the previous reporting period.

Brazil isn’t any better. During the fall election period, court orders ordering removal of content related to political campaigns rose significantly, including one court ordering removal of more than 11,500 photos from Picasa because they said it included data from copyrighted books.

For the first time, Google says it received a “significant number” of content removal requests from Croatia, Denmark, Argentina, and Panama.

And the list goes on.

Of course, the list of the top 10 worst places to blog from is still a list of 10 non-democracies. And a recent Reporters Without Borders report on the nations that most censor the Web has Myanmar, China, and Belarus topping the list. But if the trend toward Web censorship in democratic nations persists, a nation like Italy or Turkey could find its way on the list soon.

By  |  04:49 PM ET, 06/27/2011

 
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