Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spinternet: the Future of Internet Censorship?

The "Spinternet" is a term coined by Evgeny Morozov, a Belarussian journalist who has written extensively on the politics behind Internet censorship. It refers to the shift in tactics used by governments trying to censor the Internet. In the past, Internet censorship was straightforward and, to a degree, transparent: governments blocked websites, manipulated search engines, and harassed dissenting bloggers or reporters. However, Morozov states that the increasing ease and speed of Internet communication has made these methods ineffective. Blocking a website only draws attention to it and motivates Internet users to find ways to get around the block, which has the counterproductive effect of increasing the popularity of the website. Similarly, it is impossible for governments to block all the blogs that censored opinions or information can quickly spread to.

Thus, governments needed to find a new way to control Internet content. Many have turned to attempts to create a "Spinternet," a version of the Internet in which the government "spins" dissenting users' views to align with the government's views. This spinning of opinions is done secretly, by people hired by the government in question. Let me list a few notable examples. In China, there is the 50-Cent Party, composed of nearly 300,000 Chinese citizens who get 50 cents for each comment they post online, if it steers the discussion in a way that is favorable to the Chinese government. In addition, recently it was revealed that there is a plan in Nigeria to mobilize selected individuals to create seemingly credible online forums that would be used to (presumably falsely) attack the Nigerian government's online critics.


One may wonder at the effectiveness of this new approach to Internet censorship. After all, in the case of Wikipedia, companies and individuals have not been able to significantly "spin" their information pages to their preference. Wikipedia's restrictions contribute to this. However, even in the case of comments on blogs, companies and individuals have still been unsuccessful at steering the discussion into their favor. The difference between these cases and the government creating a "Spinternet" involves two factors: power and scale. Governments have a much more powerful influence on what citizens of their country can see on the Internet, and they have the option of prosecuting Internet users whose views pose a serious danger. Also, the scale of the methods that governments are using to spin views is enormous. Governments have the funds to accomplish this, as opposed to companies and individuals.

In addition, the new techniques for Internet censorship used by governments give the impression of unfairness. There is nothing remotely transparent about hiring people to give the impression that most of the country's citizens support the government's views. Such tactics will surely generate suspicion towards governments and towards the opinions available on the Internet.

The movement towards a "Spinternet" forces us to reconsider what Internet censorship truly involves. Internet censorship of the future will be significantly different than Internet censorship of the past. It is more sneaky, as well as more effective. As governments discover the effectiveness of spinning opinions, as opposed to trying to eliminate every single dissenting website or blog, Morozov's "Spinternet" will become more of a reality. What is most frightening is that there is no way to effectively stop this from happening, since if everything goes according to plan, we (everyday Internet users) will not realize this spinning of opinions is happening in the first place. Thus, it will be up to the individual to constantly have to decide whether the opinions they are reading on the Internet are legitimately held by some person, or whether they are essentially elaborate ads paid for by some government.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

China vs. Google: With the Roles Reversed

A couple of weeks ago, in late October 2009, the Chinese Communist Party's main newspaper, The People's Daily, accused Google of Internet censorship. The newspaper claimed Google was disrupting access to its website because for three days, Google searches returned a warning that their website might contain software harmful to computers. They went on to claim that Google was censoring their website on purpose because The People's Daily had just reported on Chinese authors' concerns about their rights regarding Google's potential creation of an online library of books. Even though the online library is a U.S. program, there are at least 570 Chinese authors and 17,000 Chinese written works included.

The Google spokeswoman who was interviewed denied that Google had anything to do with the malware warnings associated with the website of The People's Daily. She added that it was "absolutely incorrect" that the newspaper's reporting on the copyright dispute prompted the warnings. According to the spokeswoman, the warning was generated by software from, so it was an automatic function without any human interference. She suggested that the software made an error; it was not intentional by any means.

There must have been an error somewhere, since the newspaper website's administrators could not find anything wrong with the website that could have justified the malware warnings. In addition, the Chinese search engine Baidu did not register any similar warnings against the website. Then again, they don't use software from to detect malware sites like Google reportedly does.

I found the irony in this situation interesting. China is known for implementing tough Internet censorship, while Google is often portrayed as a victim of those censorship rules when operating in China. However, in this situation the opposite is true: China is now accusing Google of Internet censorship. How ironic that the reason behind most of the censorship on the Chinese-based is due to China itself.

Another point of irony is that Chinese authors are fighting hard for compensation from Google because they believe they are the victims of copyright violation. In China, much more significant types of copyright violation is rampant. Both online and offline pirated material of all types, especially of American movies, is widely available in China. When I visited China this past summer, shops in the marketplace had racks and racks of pirated DVDs, with everything from Harry Potter to the Discovery Channel.

One interesting piece of information came to my attention through a user's comment at the end of one of the articles. has posted its own contribution to this conflict between The People's Daily and Google. Its news report states, "The Google statement makes a small mistake in indicating that provided the software [that reported the malware warning]. In fact, Google's Safe Browsing team developed the system themselves." According to's FAQ, the company is only involved in helping website owners remove the warning on their own website through educating them about malware and website security. It specifies that Google independently determines which websites may contain malware and places the warnings in its search results.

From this information, it is hard to tell who is right and who is perhaps unintentionally twisting the truth to their own advantage. The Google spokeswoman could simply be misinformed about the role of in Google's monitoring of websites that may contain malware. Or, she could be intentionally trying to shift the blame off Google's shoulders, so it does not put the company in a bad light. On the other hand, could be doing the same - manipulating the truth in order to shift the blame over to Google, since's malware-detecting software making such a publicized mistake would be bad publicity.

All we know is that this is just another episode in a sequence of disputes between Google and China, except with the tables turned, which makes it quite interesting.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Potential WTO challenge of Internet censorship

A study published a few days ago by think-tank ECIPE (European Centre for International Political Economy) investigates the future impact of international trade law on Internet censorship. It states that the World Trade Organization (WTO), which governs international trade, is likely to challenge Internet censorship in the near future. This is because Internet censorship can hamper international trade by restricting trade in online services. By examining WTO's official regulations and the current status of Internet censorship in various countries, the study concludes that WTO has a strong case against governments involved in blanket Internet censorship. Blanket Internet censorship, or disproportionate censorship, involves permanent bans and entire blockages of websites.

There are many examples of how blanket Internet censorship in China prevents fair trade in online services there. For instance, foreign-owned search engines are doing poorly in China. The study cites in 2002, Baidu (a search engine based in China) had only 3% of the Internet search market in China, while Google had 24%. However, currently Baidu has almost two-thirds of the market and has overtaken the global leader Google in the Chinese Internet search market. In contrast, in Japan where language barriers also exist but Internet censorship is significantly less prevalent, foreign-owned search engines have >90% of the market.

The reason for the great popularity of Baidu in China is not purely due to the quality of the product; the Chinese government also has a hand in it. Baidu closely follows China's official rules on Internet censorship by not returning controversial search results or mentioning any of the over 18,000 foreign websites that the Chinese government wants blocked. Thus, the Chinese government has a vested interest in making it the most widely-used search engine in China. Google's right (and the right of other foreign search services) to offer its services in China is compromised by this. In 2002, the government in China went so far as to make the URL and IP-address of Google re-route to Baidu. An Internet user in China, after typing in, would end up on It was a great way for the government to popularize Baidu, but it was clearly done at the cost of Google.

Based on the study's findings, WTO member states that implement blanket Internet censorship are violating WTO rules, which say member states can only engage in censorship and restrict trade when it is "necessary for protecting public morals" or "maintain[ing] public order." In addition, those measures must be necessary and minimize the disruption of trade. According to the study, WTO should have a major issue with blanket Internet censorship because it disrupts commercial activities by more than necessary in order to achieve the goals of the censoring government. The study proposes WTO may advocate proportionate Internet censorship, or selective filtering, as an alternative to blanket censorship. There are exceptions though, for some WTO member states that currently implement blanket censorship do not have the infrastructure in place for switching to selective filtering. However, countries like China already have this infrastructure, so in the eyes of WTO they would have no excuse not to abandon blanket Internet censorship for something less drastic. There are, of course, sovereignty issues involved in WTO forcing member states to restrict Internet censorship, and those would need to be dealt with.

If this study's analysis of WTO's ability to influence Internet censorship is correct, then it foreshadows the potential for WTO to reprimand member states engaging in excessive censorship of the web. Such a policy would impact many nations currently heavily engaged in Internet censorship, such as China, since membership to WTO is nearly universal. As a result, providing that WTO member states comply, in the future there will be a decline in Internet censorship.

This post relates to an earlier one that centered on Bill Gates' opinion that Internet censorship will fail because of its conflict with business requirements. It turns out that Gates may be correct. Businesses will probably not lead the fight against Internet censorship, like Gates believed, but the WTO will potentially lead the fight on behalf of business that provide international online services.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reporters Without Borders

Reporters sans frontières (RSF), also known as Reporters Without Borders, is dedicated to supporting freedom of the press around the world. Because of the prevalence of online journalism and blogging nowadays, RSF's mission has extended to condemning Internet censorship. It is RSF's goal to both inform the public of the censorship and put a stop to it.

There is an alarming amount of Internet censorship around the world. According to RSF, there are at least 62 cyber-dissidents imprisoned worldwide. They are people who simply used the Internet to voice their opinions and offended some powerful organization, such as the government, by doing so. In 2007 alone, more than 2,600 websites, blogs, or discussion forums were forcibly closed or made inaccessible.

RSF has a list of 15 countries it considers to be "Enemies of the Internet." The list includes China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, just to name a few. These are countries that have an aggressive stance on conducting Internet censorship. It also has a list of "Countries Under Watch," which include such countries as Libya, Sri Lanka and Thailand. These countries do not currently imprison bloggers or support extreme Internet censorship, but abuses are common and many have laws that could be used to support Internet censorship.

Last year, in 2008, RSF declared March 12 as Online Free Expression Day. RSF cleverly linked protest with the appeal of virtual worlds by creating a virtual environment on their website. It was composed of nine virtual versions of infamous places in the world, including Beijing's Tiananmen Square and Cuba's Revolution Square, locations where real protests are impossible and forcibly ended. During the first Online Free Expression Day on March 12, 2008, Internet users were invited to this virtual environment. They could create their own avatar, choose a slogan for their banner and then "march" in any one of the virtual protest areas, without fear of being beaten by police or arrested.

It is questionable how effective this virtual protest actually was, with regards to sending a message to the governments implementing Internet censorship. Thousands of protesters gathering in virtual worlds is not nearly as impressive or intimidating as thousands gathering in the real world. However, RSF did succeed in its goal of informing the public about the immense extent of Internet censorship present around the world. Also, it was a clever strategy for RSF to successfully use the Internet as a weapon against governments trying to control it.

There was a bit of controversy around the first Online Free Expression Day. On the day before, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) withdrew its support of Online Free Expression Day. The RSF press release accused UNESCO of behaving "with great cowardice." UNESCO stated it supported the principle, the freedom of expression on the Internet, but it withdrew its support because RSF published material damaging to a number of UNESCO's Member States.

This year's Online Free Expression Day had a slightly different goal. It was aimed at reprimanding Western companies that have helped governments identify cyber-dissidents. For instance, Yahoo! Inc. has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the imprisonment of a total of four Chinese cyber-dissidents.

Amnesty International showed its support of Online Free Expression Day in 2009 by launching its "Say No to Internet Censorship" campaign. It encouraged people to urge Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft to make March 12 a single day of absolutely no censorship everywhere around the world.

So, how significant of an impact does a mere day dedicated to free expression on the Internet have? Apparently it has gotten the Chinese government to notice. On the second anniversary of Online Free Expression Day, cyber-dissident Yang Zili was released from a Chinese prison, a symbolic move by the Chinese government.

We have been discussing the future of journalism recently in class. If governments learn to respect freedom of expression in online spheres, the Internet could become beneficial to journalism. RSF helps with the spread of information by providing a "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents," which provides practical advice and techniques on how to start up a blog anonymously to circumvent censorship.

A main section of the RSF website is dedicated to updates on Internet censorship news around the world. It also documents the extent of censorship, both online and on paper, in countries around the world. In general, RSF does a good job of keeping the public informed about Internet censorship as well as censorship in general.