The vision of an Internet that is an intellectual free-fire zone of easy, cheap, speedy communication is increasingly challenged by governments through technology and law. North Korea deals with the risk that the Net might undermine juche’s illusion of that country’s superiority by creating a “walled garden” of sanitized content; access to the real Internet is extremely limited, costly, and risky due to attention from security services. (Tom Zeller wisely quotes my Berkman colleague and friend Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on NK.)
We also see China moving to tighten the link between on-line and off-line identity by requiring bloggers to register with their real names. This is another example of Internet filtering as a cross-border problem: material hosted in one’s own country is easily controlled by sending a couple police officers with guns to the local ISP (or the local blogger’s home).
The United Arab Emirates is engaging in more widespread blocking of Voice over IP phone services. ONI found heavy blocking of material in the UAE, but this filtering appears more economic than cultural: Etisalat, the state-owned telco, is protecting its long-distance monopoly.
And a write-up in The Observer covers Vietnam’s Internet controls. The article is a bit heavy-handed in its descriptions – while cybercafe owners are required to be helpful to security services when asked, most are far less interested in serving as private police than in making money from citizens eager to chat with relatives over VoIP or to check out sports Web sites – but rightly notes that activists such as Cong Thanh Do take serious risks in order to post pro-democracy content on-line in Vietnam. (For a more balanced look, check out ONI’s stats-heavy study.)
Here in the States, the government is back in court arguing laws are needed to overcome technology’s failures: the Justice Department contends that filtering software is insufficiently effective to keep kids away from objectionable content, and hence the federal government should be able to impose penalties on Web site operators who permit minors such access. This argument is quite clearly garbage on the merits: Saudi Arabia, using the software SmartFilter and a small group of techs, blocks nearly 100% of the porn on the Internet for everyone in that country. Similar software is readily available for purchase here in the States.
Internet content has its potential risks – viruses, hate speech, raunchy video – and control over the medium exists on a continuum, but we should be wary of efforts to move along that continuum towards higher rather than lower fences.