Censorship on the Internet
Computers and Human Experience
February 27, 2006
Censorship on the Internet
The Internet is a decentralized worldwide networking infrastructure. In the beginning the internet was relatively simple to control but has since grown to such an extent that policing or controlling the content is impossible. The internet provides easy access to material or information of all types from educational to harmful. As such there is a need for protection. In addition to the offensive material, and illegal content such as child pornography, criminally obscene and criminally racist there is also spy ware, viruses, worms etc which are problematic for internet users. All of the above are common reasons for seeking internet filters and protection. As such there are initiatives to censor material on the internet. There are initiatives to restrict access to various websites within libraries and schools. As a huge community open to all who have a connection, the internet is virtually impossible to censor or control. The question is who controls knowledge, why and to what effect?
Censorship is the control of the circulation of information and ideas. The act of restricting material deemed unsuitable for public consumption. The term “censorship” is a Latin term censere meaning to give as one’s opinion, to assess. Restriction and control of content is censorship on the internet. Censorship is society’s way to build security, freedom from fear, order, civility, racial and religious tolerance, as well as the well-being of our children. Often censorship coincides with restriction of materials of negative connotation by society’s opinion. There are government initiatives for filtering the content on the internet as well as informing parents and children about the internet. There are two arguments concerning censorship of the internet. Those for censorship are interested in protected children from things such as pornography and obscene materials and those against censorship are concerned with freedom of expression and personal rights.
According to Michael Landier “any law advocating censorship of the Internet is too broad and unenforceable on this global information medium” (Landier, 1997). He poses a strong opposition to censorship of the internet for this reason as well as being against freedom of speech. This point of view is well supported comparing restrictions of print media to the internet. Some of the common debates over censorship on the internet are perfectly legal to print media. The opinion is that the internet should be treated similarly to print media.
The most common example when speaking of the internet and censorship revolves around parental control. The media is full of stories in a negative light regarding children using chat rooms, accessing rated websites, etc. From this point of view censorship is important. Children are impressionable and innocent and need protection. Often parents are unaware of exactly what their children are accessing on the internet. Parents tend to think that the computer and internet is being used for educational purposes only. Being able to censor the materials accessed by children is important for their protection. This example could be compared to the well known “never talk to strangers” lesson taught to children. Parents need to know how to protect their children on the internet.
Unfortunately at this point in time the younger generations know a lot more about computers and the internet than their parents. This has been brought about since the internet and computer technology is newly developed. The original internet ARPAnet was first introduced in 1969. The ARPAnet was complex and only used by computer experts, scientists, engineers and librarians. The internet has only been used by non technical people in the eighties and nineties with the creation of email, ftp and telnet. The internet was a government initiative and was not used by independent organizations until 1995. It was developed for communication and sharing of files. Computers and the internet have only been around for 37 years and easily accessible for the general population for much less time. The technology has been developed at a rapid pace and been present within the school systems for about the past ten years or so. As such the younger generations have had the luxury of developing with the technology and learning how computers and the internet work whereas their parents tend to have a knowledge deficit. With the development of the internet there have also been interest groups formed regarding new technologies and public interest. In Canada there is The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) which is involved with policy and law making regarding new technologies.
Traditionally censorship has been the regulation of moral and political life. Throughout history censorship has led to destruction and death or burning and banning. Perhaps the most famous and earliest recorded was Socrates who in 399 BC was sentenced to death by poison for corrupting youth and not acknowledging the gods. Censorship has also lead to the destruction of libraries throughout history. One example being the University of Oxford library destroyed in 1663 by orders from the king. Today there continues to be censorship of literary works. Examples of well known works that have been banned or almost banned include To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Anne Frank’s Diary, Huck Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, An Ideal Husband, The Canterbury Tales, Catcher in the Rye, and the Harry Potter series.
Freedom of speech has throughout history been the counter to censorship. Defined as being a civil liberty, freedom of speech is one of the basic rights in a democracy. Free speech facilitates majority rule. It is through talking that we encourage consensus, that we form a collective speech is a means of participation. Freedom of speech is self-expression. In the United States of America the First Amendment declares freedom of speech as a civil right. As Justice Thurgood Marshall stated "The First Amendment serves not only the needs of the polity but also those of the human spirit — a spirit that demands self-expression." The theory of free speech, the freedom of expression is not a perfect probability. Free expression in certain circumstances leads to consequences. A recent example of resulting with devastating negative affects concerns the publishing of the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Demonstrations and riots resulted with the destruction of businesses, cars, and the Danish Consulate.
Blogs are websites that are written diary like. A means of expressing thoughts published on the internet. Blogs have been known as a means of media in restricted countries where the mainstream media is censored. There is a global issue of blog censorship and freedom of speech. In some countries bloggers have recently been jailed. In China blogs are to be registered and have begun to be censored by Microsoft in conjunction with the laws and norms of the country. Freedom of speech is non existent on blogs for many reasons. Typically there are words, phrases, names etc that are censored out automatically by the blog software in most countries. Politics and religion are two topics that are controversial and therefore censored. People do tend to censor themselves especially knowing that there have been consequences for some using blogs for publishing their thoughts freely. An example of a group of professionals working towards freedom from censorship and free speech on the internet is Electronic Frontier Foundation. This non profit organization works for blogger’s rights and freedom of expression in general on the internet.
Obscene material, child pornography and racism are illegal. Unfortunately such things do exist on the internet and are difficult to control. In attempts to censor material available to children filtering programs have been developed. However these filters have been proven to be faulty, allowing inappropriate material to be viewed and inadvertently blocking appropriate general interest material. Using a filtering program is not a solution for parents as it is not a hundred percent effective. One obvious difficulty with inappropriate material is the file names and tags used for these sites. Such problems increase the difficulty of censorship and restriction.
Spy ware is a problem within society related to privacy. A basic description of spy ware is that it is software that covertly gathers information using the internet similar to a Trojan horse. Within Canada there is no specific legislation stating that the use of spy ware is illegal. The use of laws protecting personal privacy and fraud are used to counteract spy ware. The best solution for spy ware is to be cautious and avoid suspicious downloads. However it is sometimes unavoidable to come in contact with spy ware programs attempting to get onto you computer and that are when being able to detect and delete such programs is important. There are anti spy ware programs that will detect and delete spy ware programs.
Pornography on the internet is restricted in public computers such as libraries and schools. There have been laws written specifically to block access to rated websites in libraries and schools. This is a form of censorship in itself. However this sort of censorship has been accepted as it serves to protect a fragile population, our children. The unfortunate problem with this censorship is that the software used is not perfect there are problems sifting through the content of the internet and therefore sometimes rated websites are accessed still. Another issue is the fact that some well written websites are inadvertently blocked by the programs thus limiting the research capabilities for children in schools and libraries.
There seems to be a need to restrict material on the internet for various reasons however it seems like an impossible feat at this point in time. The most apparent reason for censorship is to protect vulnerable populations such as children under the age of eighteen from things such as pornography and profanity. The shear amount of information on the internet today is overwhelming and still growing.
Restriction is censorship and is in place for libraries and schools connected to the internet. Freedom of speech by the true definition does not exist within many societies for example China where there are strict laws and regulations prohibiting certain topics. There has always been and always will be a sort of censorship of unsuitable material for the population. There are various initiatives for freedom of speech on the internet. As much as we advocate for freedom of speech there is no such thing. True freedom would include freedom from prosecution. There have been cases in the world where people have gone to jail for the content of their website. Governments have taken initiatives to censor material on the internet with laws and policies. Blogs are censored. Overall website content is censored to some extent in which illegal information and pictures are enforced as well as political and religious discussions. Censorship continues to counter freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Is freedom of speech possible with the laws and policies in our societies? The debate between censorship and freedom of speech has been and will be around for many more years to come. The only change is now there is a new medium for expression, the internet.
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