Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bill Gates' Opinion on Internet Censorship

I came across an interesting New York Times article from last year, with the headline "Bill Gates: Internet Censorship Won't Work." Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave a talk at Stanford University in February 2008 on "Software, Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Giving Back." While there, he spoke briefly on the future of Internet censorship in the world. Gates believes Internet censorship attempts by countries such as China are ultimately doomed to fail. He states he doesn't "see any risk in the world at large that someone will restrict free content flow on the Internet." The reason behind Gates' belief that the Internet cannot be controlled is based on the conflict between business requirements and censorship.

In Gates' view, restrictions on free speech curtail business activity, so businesses will work against censorship. However, this directly contradicts Microsoft's own actions regarding Internet censorship. Especially with regard to China, Microsoft has cooperated with Internet censorship laws of other countries. For example, it has censored the content of Windows Live Spaces, its blog service. In late 2005, Microsoft removed the well-known blog of Chinese journalist Zhao Jing (a.k.a. Michael Anti) from Windows Live Spaces at the request of the Chinese government.

In February 2006, Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's Managing Director of Federal Government Affairs, gave a congressional testimony on the topic of Internet in China. In it, he stated that Microsoft regretted having to remove the blog, but continuing to provide Internet services to the Chinese is more beneficial than resisting the Chinese government's wishes. The current stand of Microsoft is to remove content when the Chinese government sends an official notice indicating the material violates local laws.

The relationship between Microsoft and the Chinese government indicates the interaction between businesses and governments, especially foreign governments, is more complex than Gates states. The wishes of big businesses influence the government, but only to a certain extent. In the end, businesses are no match against government laws supporting Internet censorship. There is often no reason for businesses to stand up to the government, since cooperation is a much easier option. With this in mind, Gates' belief that Internet censorship will unavoidably come to an end in the future due to businesses working against censorship is a very debatable one. If Internet censorship ever disappears, it will be because of a combination of forces. Looking at the past, public disapproval and resistance will likely play a bigger role than the action of businesses.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Verizon's Censorship and Net Neutrality

While looking into the presence of Internet censorship here in the United States, I ran into an interesting story from a couple years back that involves the attempted censorship of text message communication. Even though the topic does not involve the Internet, it does involve communication using technology, so I decided it is a relevant blog post topic. It is not recent news either, but it does relate to the current controversy in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over net neutrality rules, which I will discuss more in depth later on in the post.

On the same day in September 2007, the New York Times published two articles on the story in question, "Verizon Rejects Text Messages From an Abortion Rights Group" and "Verizon Reverses Itself on Abortion Messages." This topic of text message censorship caught my eye because it reminded me of Howard Rheingold's concept of smart mobs. The group whose text messages were being censored was Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group that asked to use Verizon's mobile network for a text message program that would have been used to encourage abortion rights supporters to take political action, such as making phone calls.

Verizon's official grounds for refusing to accept Naral's text message program is because it does accept text message programs in general that seek to "promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users." The problem with the public and many Verizon customers who heard about this censorship was that the only users who would be impacted by Naral's text message would be ones that signed up for it in the first place and wanted to receive updates on political action against abortion, so there was no legitimate reason for Verizon to deny it. The article about Verizon's censorship even made the front page of the New York Times, further feeding the controversy.

Due to pressure from displeased customers and the public in general, Verizon reversed its stance on the issue on the same day. Still, the incidence caused people to realize that Verizon's censorship was not actually against the law, since the laws against telephone calls being blocked did not apply to text messages. As a result, this provoked extended discussion over net neutrality rules. Net neutrality is the concept that users should have equal access to the Internet. A common analogy is to compare net neutrality and broadband carriers to telephone networks. Telephone networks provide telephone service to their customers, but they cannot control who they call or who calls them. Similarly, the concept of net neutrality states that broadband carriers should not be able to control their users' activity.

In late September 2009, the FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced the FCC would begin to formalize net neutrality rules in the United States. This has led to a string of news reports on the current discussions over net neutrality. Those in support of net neutrality state that websites like Google and Facebook owe their huge popularity and impact to the free and open Internet. However, others are worried that government intervention on behalf of net neutrality would be counterproductive. Broadband carriers would have to reevaluate how they charge for data plans and perhaps even cap how much bandwidth users get.

Genachowski did not specify how the new net neutrality rules would apply to mobile providers like Verizon. He did say he wanted the FCC to "analyze fully the implications of the principles for mobile network architectures and practice." This could eventually mean net neutrality will be applied to mobile networks and text messaging as well.

Enforcing net neutrality would go a long way in essentially eliminating unreasonable Internet censorship in the United States. By unreasonable Internet censorship, I mean censoring legal Internet material, as opposed to illegal material. Of course there are issues regarding how to enforce it effectively. At least one thing is certain, the United States is moving towards an Internet policy in congruence with its values of freedom of speech and expression.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Censorship in China and Identity

A recent New York Times article, "China Web Sites Seeking Users' Names", reported on a new development in Internet censorship in China. Due to government orders, Chinese news websites now require users to register their true identities before posting comments. In the past, users' comments were screened and could be traced through their Internet protocol (IP) addresses, but registration was not required.

This type of censorship had been in the works for a while. In the past few years there were multiple attempts to require users to register before commenting on blog posts or news articles, but these attempts were blocked by public resistance from Chinese Internet users and the media. This most recent attempt was successful because the censorship was secretly implemented. Major news organizations around the world discovered its existence in early September. The Chinese government was motivated to install this censorship because of the 60th anniversary of the creation of the People's Republic of China, which passed on October 1st.

The sudden introduction of this new method of Internet censorship underscores the secrecy woven into China's policy on Internet censorship. Several articles about the censorship that were posted on Chinese websites were forced to be taken down. In the New York Times article, all of the quotes from officials familiar with the new policy were attributed anonymously because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

Of course, this new form of censorship in China revolves around the issue of online identity, a topic we discussed in class in relation to virtual worlds. The Chinese government believes if users are forced to make their identities public, then it will promote "social responsibility" and "civility." However, the censorship raises the problem of how to prevent fake identities from sprouting up everywhere. It is certainly possible, since a reporter was able to successfully register on several different news sites with a fake name, ID number and cell phone number.

There are several consequences of this recent addition to Internet censorship in China. Although this censorship is not a blatant attempt to limit freedom of expression on the Internet, it certainly does that to a degree. Critics also fear that the new measure will reduce readership of online news sources. The suddenness of the implementation is suspect as well, and it may foreshadow future censorship surprises.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

An Overview of Internet Censorship in the World

The Guardian recently posted an online map documenting the presence of Internet censorship around the world. The map takes into account four types of content targeted by censorship: political, social, security and internet tools. Each country is either colored gray (if no data is available) or given a color on a scale from yellow to red, with yellow indicating "no evidence" of censorship and red indicating "pervasive" censorship.

Internet censorship penetrates all areas of the world, from here in the United States to across the world in the Middle East and China. The map offers a useful though incomplete overview of Internet censorship around the world. For the countries on the map currently designated as gray ("no data"), the Guardian requests its readers' help on gathering more information. It is not clear what the Guardian does with the data gathered this way from its readers. Most likely it is used as a lead to further investigation rather than taken to be fact, otherwise the reliability of the map would be questionable.

Overall, this map is too broad and vague to be taken as the sole source of information about Internet censorship around the world. However, it provides an adequate starting point for investigating the topic. The map raises some interesting points. For instance, China, Burma and Iran are the only countries listed as having "pervasive" or "substantial" censorship in all of the four categories. These countries will likely be mentioned often in future blogs about Internet censorship.

Internet censorship is a reflection of deep bonds between computers and society. Ever since the Internet became available to everyday consumers, computers have taken on an increasingly bigger role in today's world and, consequently, in today's societies.

The Internet has undoubtedly revolutionized the way humans communicate. Governments and other organizations often fear the power of this efficient method of sharing ideas, so they attempt to control it through censorship. Up until now, the increased attempts on enforcing censorship on the Internet have paralleled the increase in power and popularity of the Internet.

However, in the future this trend may change. As the Internet becomes an increasingly important means of communication, Internet users will naturally value their freedom of expression more. The result of this ongoing conflict between Internet censorship and freedom of expression is unclear. Eventually one will have to be sacrificed, at least partially, for the other.