Didi’s Blog

December 26th, 2007

Governments

Posted by dxie in Control of the Internet

In recent years, the Internet has expanded to many countries around the world. Many hope that these countries, especially third world countries, will be catapulted forward by this expansion. Governments view this development with mixed feelings. Many governments feel a threat to the control they have over their citizens because the Internet brings with it such a wealth of information. Citizens who were previously ignorant may feel suppressed by their governments and feel empowered to perhaps even overthrow their leaders.

It cannot be denied that the Internet brings some threats to nondemocratic rule. The Internet promotes the free exchange of ideas and information, and allows anyone with access to express their opinions to everyone else connected. These are some of the ideals of democracies.

However, despite its threat to their power, leaders must also admit that being connected to the Internet brings many economic advantages, and it would be a blow to any country if Internet access is denied there. This idea may arise from the concept of the digital divide, or more specifically, the global digital divide. The idea is that countries with more Internet penetration can advance more easily because the Internet brings with it many job opportunities that are otherwise unavailable. In addition, the Internet brings a source of education, which is key to finding work and advancing the country. Thus, the Internet is a very useful tool for underdeveloped countries, but unfortunately, it is these same countries that have the most difficulty gaining and maintaining access to the Internet. Even within each country, the digital divide is an issue because it is often difficult for a country to provide Internet access to all its people equally. Even in the United States, for example, those who are among the rural poor and rural and central city minorities, and young and female-headed households have lower rates of Internet access.

The situation is a little different in each country. However, I find it particularly interesting to look at China, partially for personal reasons but more importantly because China stands out a little more than other countries in its current situation. China is not undeveloped, yet it has only newly gained access to Internet. China has tremendous potential for growth, and as the government is finally loosening its hold, there has been so much economic development within the country. For the most part, the Internet seems to be aiding the growth of China. However, the government of China has instigated many regulations intended to filter the content coming through from the Internet.

How does China control Internet traffic? The answer is, of course, through the law. Under Chinese law, any use of the Internet to “destroy the order of society,” “promote sexually suggestive material, gambling, or murder,” “criticize the PRC Constitution,” “damage the reputation of the State,” etc. is prohibited. Aside from the fact that these numerous laws could put a severe chill on Internet speech, they are simply impractical to enforce. The laws themselves are too general and provide no way to evaluate an offense. In addition, there are different sets of regulations from between state and local governments, and no one is exactly clear who has jurisdiction over the Internet.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has put a tremendous amount of effort into Internet regulation. In addition to technology intended solely for checking online content, there are many agencies who hire people to physically watch over Internet content. According to BusinessWeek, these people number 30,000. The Chinese government also controls certain gateways that all Internet traffic must pass through, which serves as another level of protection. However, filtering all Internet traffic to a whole nation is a difficult task, and websites with similar contents are not consistently blocked.

Businesses and Internet cafes are often put in a position where they must aid the Chinese government’s efforts in censorship of the Internet at the threat of prosecution. IT companies hoping to take root in China are often forced to make compromises in order to do business. Companies are often forced to restrict the content coming through to their users or to disclose private information to the Chinese government.

Internet cafes, as well as ISPs, have their own sets of regulations because they face the threat of prosecution themselves. Internet content providers employ people to monitor forums and chat rooms, and Internet cafes hire managers to watch over what users are doing. From my personal experience at an Internet café in China, managers were especially strict on minors, who apparently were not allowed to have Internet access on weekdays because it was distracting from schoolwork. When I asked how this was enforced, I received the reply that if one student saw another student at an Internet café, he or she would report this to their teacher.

Therefore, besides the government and businesses regulating the Internet, individuals monitor each other’s Internet access. I feel this is one of the many examples of how deep some of the issues are that arise from Internet access.

All this being said, I don’t believe that China’s filtering is necessary to squash political dissent. First off, it’s been established that the filtering is not complete, and therefore, Chinese citizens are inevitably exposed to content prohibited by Chinese law. In addition, many of the ideas that may be prohibited from being written online may manifest in other forms, such as commercials or advertisements by the many foreign companies moving into China. Second, if people are really all that angry at the Chinese government, they would not be helping to regulate Internet access. The fact that it is the general population adheres and enforces Chinese law signifies a certain trust in Chinese leadership.

And in fact, filtering may not be as severe as it is hyped up to be. The reality is that a couple websites and a couple phrases are blocked but compared to how recently the Internet was introduced to such a large country, the improvement is great. I can even go as far as to say that it is understandable that the Chinese government is taking a conservative approach towards Internet access. The country is advancing in many ways very quickly, and the government does not want to lose control even though they want to continue heading in their current direction. The general impression I receive from the average citizen is a pride in their country, not mistrust or fear.

Even though China’s censorship may be the most publicized, other countries around the world also are also filtering Internet content. The European Union prohibits “child pornography and racist material” on its Internet and is trying to promote parents and teachers to help regulate Internet access. In Saudi Arabia, Internet access is filtered through a government control center and sensitive religious and political issues are censored. Even South Korea, considered one of most advanced countries in regards to Internet access, has a list of blocked websites and filters contents at Internet cafes, schools, and public libraries according to Electronic Frontiers.

Many people overlook the fact that even the United States filters its Internet access to some extent. Schools often censor the content coming through to its computers in order to protect students. Search engines, as a general policy, filter their contents. Despite the fact that the federal government granted First Amendment protection to the Internet, individual states are passing laws to do with censorship of the Internet.

Thus, what would seem to be a global network seems to be breaking down into smaller, specialized networks. The question is whether or not this is desirable, and there seem to be good arguments for both sides of the case.

Many had hoped that the Internet would connect people in a way never imagined before, where everyone’s voice was heard equally and judged without bias. It would together the opinions of people from all over the world and all different backgrounds. The Internet would be a medium of change, a way to bring suppressed peoples out of their miseries. However, governments see this as a threat, and by using filters and firewalls, hope to only isolate the economic benefits of the Internet.

However, having completely open Internet access has its advantages as well. Many countries may not be completely ready all the information the Internet brings. It is difficult for one to bring the Internet to countries where no one is able to maintain the computers, and where the country barely has electricity and running water. Aside from this fact, however, if a country is in turmoil and sensitive information from the Internet could jeopardize peace, then I feel like a country is not ready for complete access to the Internet, and a government has the power and the right to censor information on the Internet to maintain order. However, I feel that this applies only to extreme cases, where the stability of a country depends entirely on the ignorance of its people. Often, even if people are introduced to the Internet, they may not have access to a computer to access to the Internet, they may be illiterate, or they may not find supposedly sensitive information on the Internet useful.

December 23rd, 2007

Businesses

Posted by dxie in Control of the Internet

The Internet began as a group of connected networks instigated by universities for academic purposes. During the late 1980s, the Internet was opened for commercial use. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were born. Along with the Internet came email, search engines, the world wide web, and dot-com companies.

As mentioned in the overview, online businesses have a lot of incentive to seek control of the Internet. Because there are simply so many places to surf online, companies need to compete for their businesses to be exposed to a large number of people.

Internet Service Providers are in a position to exploit this. Because they have the power to filter what their users can view, they could theoretically be bribed to allow or block certain websites, or they could cause certain websites to load more quickly or slowly than others. Recently, the news has cited several incidents where ISPs have apparently used this very ability. AOL, for example, seems to have blocked for a period of time any emails mentioning DearAOL.com, a website against DearAOL. A similar incident occurred with Comcast reducing its users’ connection speed when downloading with BitTorrent.

What are the negative impacts of ISPs exercising this power? Well, if ISPs were allowed to freely filter whatever they would like, they could block certain websites from being able to be accessed by users. They could tailor the Internet to only show websites they find favorable. The Internet would no longer be a free forum where anyone could have their say. We would lose part of the reason the Internet is so dear to us in the first place. Taken more seriously, when a user signed up for Internet service from an ISP, a user would effectively be signing up for a specific ISPs interpretation of the Internet.

In addition, this would concentrate too much power in the hands of ISPs. Businesses interested in having more popular websites would be inclined to pay ISPs for faster connection speeds to their websites. ISPs would effectively have almost complete control of the Internet by earning revenue by being selective of Internet content. They would have less of an incentive to please users as long as businesses could provide them enough revenue.

More practically, even if filtering is applied positively, it is fairly difficult to effectively filter all the information on such an expansive network. ISPs could not possibly be able to block the websites they want completely without affecting other websites as well.

This is not to say filtering by ISPs is entirely a bad thing. For example, ISPs could help block websites that don’t serve a positive purpose for users. If aided with the right technology, blocking pornography from children wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The problem lies in that blocking pornography and only pornography to only kids is very difficult to do without disrupting connections to non-pornographic websites.

In addition, I don’t believe the problem is a serious as it first appears. There are many checks to the power ISPs hold over the Internet. For example, if ISPs abuse their power too willfully and egregiously, other businesses will begin protesting. The same can be said about the general community, the people who are using the services the ISPs and businesses are providing. Since there are competing ISP companies, ISPs will refrain from abusing power in order not to lose business. Finally, if the situation gets too serious, there is always government intervention.

However, if you look at the situation from a different perspective, isn’t the Internet simply just another news source, much like television or newspaper? Thus, how is an ISP filtering Internet traffic different from newspapers choosing specific content to print? Wouldn’t it make sense for ISPs to filter content much as newspapers filter their contents?

One argument may be that the Internet is different from anything ever seen before, that it is more expansive and powerful than any TV channel or newspaper could ever be. I feel it is difficult to make such a judgment call at this point of time because the Internet is still relatively new. Another argument may be that with newspapers, it is possible to circumvent the filtering or large newspapers by publishing news in tabloids or smaller newspapers. The same may be possible when it comes to ISPs because as mentioned earlier, it is difficult to filter very completely. However, it may also be that ISPs still hold the threat of filtering more completely than newspapers could considering everything is electronic.

On another note, telephone companies, notably AT&T, are limiting the websites users can access on their cell phones. They achieve this because they provide the device users surf the Internet with. I wanted to mention this briefly because I feel like this is an example of the many ways businesses can take control of people’s Internet access that perhaps goes overlooked. Often the way we access the Internet allows for third parties to gain some influence.

December 19th, 2007

Overview

Posted by dxie in Control of the Internet

As the Internet becomes more and more integrated in each of our lives and more expansive around the world, the question of who, if anyone, controls the Internet, and the future of the Internet as we know it becomes more and more important. With the ability to reach billions of people around the world quickly and easily, the Internet is a news source unparalleled by anything ever known before. People today do their shopping online, download music, make phone calls, write emails, and in short, live through the Internet. Indeed, any individual or organization with too much control over such a powerful tool poses a threat to the freedoms of many people.

There are incentives for many different organizations to seek control over the Internet. Among these include businesses, governments, and individuals. Each of these entities use their own methods of seeking control. Lawrence Lessig mentions four “constraints” in his writings which regulate the Internet. Namely these are the law, the market, social norms, and the architecture of the Internet. In a way, this is very relevant to our discussion. For example, the government would utilize the law as its main way of gaining control, whereas businesses would use the market. Communities hold power due to social norms, and a few individuals may exploit the architecture of the Internet for their purposes.

Businesses have incentives to control the Internet in order to expose their products to a large population of people for extended periods. Among these businesses, perhaps telephone and cable companies can most easily influence Internet access, as they are the ones who provide Internet access in the first place. Telephone and cable companies have the power to block certain websites and, with the power to effectively censor the Internet, comes the power to choose what people view and think. Many people rely on the Internet as their primary source of information, and there is a certain danger to this when that source is biased. This type of control can be very subtle, and many users would not be able to detect the difference if companies are careful.

Governments also have their reasons for wanting control. As the Internet expands to more and more countries around the world, certain governments may not want their citizens exposed to all the information the Internet has to offer. Especially in more restricted countries, where the government limits communications and restricts certain forms of speech, the Internet may pose a threat to their ability to control their citizens in these ways. In some cases, the Internet may allow citizens ways to challenge the rule of the government which were never before possible. Even in the United States, not all states may want unfiltered Internet access for their citizens. For example, more conservative states may not appreciate porn being readily available to its citizens. In these cases, state governments may want the ability to filter the Internet. This brings us to the question of whether or not this is necessarily a bad idea. Used in the right way, filters can be very effective and beneficial to people using the Internet. Perhaps, then, open access to the Internet for every single person isn’t the most ideal plan.

Control of the Internet is thus an important topic to consider when thinking about the future of the Internet. In order for control to be given to the right people, if any person at all, we must realize who has control now. With the right knowledge, the Internet will continue to expand and provide benefits to individuals around the world. The Internet can serve as an unbiased form of communication, where each individual is truly equal and where all sides of a debate are given a say.