The Internet has changed the way information is spread around the world. Internet usage has become ubiquitous in developed countries and it is still growing in less developed countries. The ability of populations to get information through the Internet is treated differently by various countries.
Some countries have codified the right to Internet access in law. Witness, for instance, Estonia’s 2000 law declaring Internet access to be a fundamental human right. Internet censorship is a big issue for freedom of information and civil right's groups. Human Rights Watch told the U.S. Congress last year that
Human Rights Watch believes that the Internet is a transformative force that can help open closed societies and provide the near-instantaneous flow of information to inform the public, mobilize for change, and ultimately hold institutions accountable. We have warned, however, that there is a real danger of a Virtual Curtain dividing the Internet, much as the Iron Curtain did during the Cold War, because some governments fear the potential of the Internet, want to control it and the companies that provide the services and products tied to it; and users fear the consequences of using it as a medium for openness and accountability.
This warning was timely because there are some worrying signs that governmental censorship is on the rise around the world. Australian lawmakers have recently proposed a controversial law that would institute a mandatory Internet filtering scheme. This is following a 2007 law that gave Federal police power to block access to any website.
Designed for the laudable goal of blocking access to pornography for children, the plan also has the potential to block websites discussing controversial topics such as euthanasia and anorexia. Citizens would not be allowed to opt out of the filtering (the original version of the bill would have let people contact their Internet service providers to opt out of the filtering.) Not surprisingly, advocates for freedom of information and rights groups have been extremely critical of the plan. One commentator even noted that a list of websites that would be blocked by the Australian law has been leaked, and it "has, in effect, given every 15-year-old in Australia a guide to porn online."
For a discussion of the proposed Australian law, including a defense of the law from a member of the Parliament, click here.
The country that gets the most attention of Internet censorship is China. China already had the most sophisticated Internet censorship system in the world before last week's news that China has again blocked YouTube because of a video purporting to show Chinese police fatally beating a Tibetan protester. This is not the first time China has blocked access to YouTube; they do so from time to time when there are videos criticizing the Chinese Government.
Other recent Internet censorship acts by China include restricting access to international reporters covering the Beijing Olympics and China pushing the United Nations to curb Internet anonymity by drawing up surveillance and monitoring technical standards. Regarding the anonymity issue, a U.N. document leaked to Columbia computer engineering professor Steve Bollovin stated justifications for the China-drafted Internet standards:
According to a new study by the OpenNet Initiative, state-sponsored Internet censorship is on the rise. Other recent offenders include Burma, Bangladesh, and Turkey. According to Harvard Law Professor John Palfrey, "In five years we have gone from a couple of states doing state-mandated net filtering to 25."
If you are interested in combating the rise in censorship of the Internet, there are a number of groups you could join, including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the OpenNet Initiative.