Is Online Censorship On the Rise?

Censorship of the Internet is definitely alive and well in countries where oppressive government regimes seek to control the flow of information, such as China, Uzbekistan, Cuba, and Iran. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that there are 125 journalists behind bars around the world as of the start of this month. That’s actually a drop of 2 from 2007, but given that 45% of imprisoned journalists are bloggers or work exclusively online it is clear that the rise of the Internet as an information source has led to a parallel rise in censorship.

“Online journalism has changed the media landscape and the way we communicate with each other,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “But the power and influence of this new generation of online journalists has captured the attention of repressive governments around the world, and they have accelerated their counterattack.”

That’s not overly surprising. What is perhaps surprising, is cases of Internet censorship that have begun to crop up in Western nations.

We recently wrote about Australia’s censorship plans, under which the government would force ISPs to filter “objectionable material” and block access for users. That plan has met with a large deal of public criticism and multiple petitions have been created in an effort to block it.

Also in Australia this week, a Supreme Court judge ruled that cartoon depictions of underage sex were the same as child pornography. The judge determined that anti-child pornography laws were on the books not only there to stop abuse of real children, but to curb the creation and distribution of material, such as cartoons, that could “fuel demand for material that does involve the abuse of children.”

Similarly, in the UK today this week the nonprofit, non-governmental Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) added a Wikipedia page to their blacklist because of an image that depicts an underage girl in the nude. The IWF’s blacklist is used by most British ISPs to maintain decency standards for users. The page in question (potentially NSFW) is for the 1976 Scorpions album “Virgin Killer,” and includes a picture of the album’s cover, which shows a prepubescent in the nude. The IWF determined that the picture was “a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18,” and added the page their blacklist.

The IWF eventually backed down and removed the page from their blacklist, though implied that the image might still be blocked if hosted in the UK.

Some might argue that the protection of children is paramount, and if it comes at the expense of a few “perverts” not being able to ogle drawings of little girls, or (subjectivity warning) artistic nude photos, then so be it. These cases aren’t, after all, cases of journalists or bloggers being censored because they’re speaking out against a government, but rather this is censorship of decidedly “icky” content.

However, sometimes standing up against censorship might mean standing up for speech you don’t agree with, or even find downright reprehensible. The slippery slope argument is definitely applicable here.

As Neil Gaiman reminded on his blog last week in a post that is a must-read for anyone concerned with why freedom of speech is an important right to fight for, “If you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”

JR Raphael of PC World writes that the IWF case is particularly disturbing because it illustrates private censorship, even if only lasted a couple of days. Why should a private organization be allowed to assert “its own right, outside of the law, to determine what legally acceptable content you should or should not be allowed to see?”

Further, what these cases have in common is that they present challenges the limits of free speech. Should a drawing really ever be considered illegal? Can a photo of a nude child ever be art? What about the controversial work of famous photographers like Jock Sturges or Sally Mann, are they works of pornography or art? Should Amazon be blacklisted for including cover images of the Scorpions’ album or a Sally Mann book? Should any private organization have a say over what is decent and what you are allowed to see? Should the government?

“These are tough questions, and there may not be any definitively correct answers. I sure don’t have them,” writes Raphael. “But there’s no doubt an important debate brewing here that’s far bigger than this one case — and everyone who uses the Internet has reason to be invested in its outcome.”

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  • David Sparks

    i found this bothersome as well as the general topic:

    “Also in Australia this week, a Supreme Court judge ruled that cartoon depictions of underage sex were the same as child pornography. The judge determined that anti-child pornography laws were on the books not only there to stop abuse of real children, but to curb the creation and distribution of material, such as cartoons, that could “fuel demand for material that does involve the abuse of children.”

    reason being..
    in china they’re allowed to pursue this, in my opinion, sick perversion via this exact outlet. cartoons. it’s very big over there. bc theyre not punished from this outlet.
    as a result they have almost a complete lack of pedophilia crimes. punishment isnt a cure. what this judge doesnt realize in the face of fact is that by preventing this he’s unknowingly and as bizarre as it is, encouraging this behavior in the long run.

    if they cant have that, they’ll turn to the real thing. there’s no proof it works in reverse. if they have the cartoons it will result in the real thing. its the pot gateway drug argument that is absolutely false.

  • Boyohazard

    Slightly late on this one Josh. The censorship occurred around the 7th/8th not today :) Furthermore the BBC reports the IWF has already backed down http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7774102.stm

  • http://www.mockriot.com/ Josh Catone

    @Boyohazard: Thanks for the update. I got a little confused because the IWF updated the timestamp on an earlier post on their site when they added an update — which I somehow missed while reading the post.

    Anyway, I’ve updated my post to reflect that change. Either way, I still think the crux of the issue remains and the IWF case is a valid piece of it. :)

  • http://www.flywalk.co.uk themightystephen

    I don’t agree with David Sparks above. I believe the judge was right. I don’t think its true that an absence of such cartoons encourages pedophilia. I believe its because the Chinese government block pornographic websites in general (both over-18 and under-18). That is the reason why they have so few pedophilia problems. This is one area where censorship is a good thing – by blocking all pornographic websites. All porn websites, whether explicit or implicit, under-age or 18+, should be made illegal (and censored). Trust me, everyone will not only survive without porn, but be much happier without it.

    When it comes to the censorship in other things…I do mind… (e.g. my freedom of speech).

  • raena

    I don’t think its true that an absence of such cartoons encourages pedophilia. I believe its because the Chinese government block pornographic websites in general (both over-18 and under-18).

    Porn has been around for about as long as humans have been able to make drawings. It’s unrealistic to assume that you could eliminate it by making it illegal.

    That is the reason why they have so few pedophilia problems.

    That we know of.

  • kumarei

    All porn websites, whether explicit or implicit, under-age or 18+, should be made illegal (and censored). Trust me, everyone will not only survive without porn, but be much happier without it.

    Even supposing that this is true, there remains the question of what is porn and what isn’t. For example, how about an educational drawing of human genitalia? How about an artist’s nude? A pinup? How about if it’s done artistically, as Suicide Girls strives for?

    The problem with this kind of thing is that the lines are arbitrary. I know of some people that would say that the anatomical drawing would constitute porn. Should we use their definition or yours? Yours? How do you prove it?

    With child pornography, the line is easy. It’s bad because it causes harm, mental and physical, to a child. But other lines are harder, and once you’ve given someone the right to draw the line, you can never go back. Your liberty is in the hands of others. And you aren’t going to get it back without a fight.

  • Tarh

    This reminds me of the philosophy for the FreeNet project, which has been known to host child pornography in a cryptographically untraceable manner.
     
    Their philosophy page once addressed this exact issue, but it seems to have been removed since then.
     
    Also, the “slippery slope argument” is fallacious.

  • http://www.mockriot.com/ Josh Catone

    Also, the “slippery slope argument” is fallacious.

    Not always. To quote the following page: “There are a variety of ways to turn a slippery slope fallacy into a valid (or at least plausible) argument. All you need to do is provide some reason why the adoption of one policy will lead to the adoption of another.”

    http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/fallacies.html#Slippery%20slope

    Unfortunately, I didn’t do a very good job of showing that reason. However, the Neil Gaiman article I linked to does a very good job, I think. I’d urge you to read it. :)

    Also, it would be wrong to interpret what I wrote in any was as an argument for child pornography, or protecting child pornographers. That is exactly what it is not. It is an argument for the protection of free speech and against the censorship of the Internet — especially censorship based on the narrow views of a single organization or entity.

  • kumarei

    Also, the “slippery slope argument” is fallacious.

    Not a slippery slope argument. A slippery slope argument would be that first we ban pornography, then we ban art, then we ban anatomy text books.

    That isn’t what I said. What I said is that pornography is subjective, and by adding a law to the books banning it, the interpretation is entirely up to the enforcers. By banning pornography, we would be giving the government the right to ban anatomy textbooks at their jurisdiction.

    You may doubt that there is anyone who would use it in this way, but I am less trusting. And I think that artwork that borders on pornographic has artistic merit, especially if it pushes at the boundaries of human understanding. Other people wouldn’t see it that way, though, and I wouldn’t be willing to let them make the decision.

    This reminds me of the philosophy for the FreeNet project, which has been known to host child pornography in a cryptographically untraceable manner.

    My problem with the FreeNet project is that it fails in its original intent. People in countries that are oppressed cannot use it, because the government could tell that they are using it. Thus, the only purpose that FreeNet currently serves (over and above the regular internet) is to have a bit of privacy and to conduct illicit activities.

  • Tarh

    Not a slippery slope argument.

    The original blog post refers to it as such. I was addressing that.

  • http://www.afterlight.net.au AussieJohn

    @themightystephen:

    When it comes to the censorship in other things…I do mind… (e.g. my freedom of speech).

    So you’re saying that things that matter to and are important to you, you do not want to be censored (e.g. YOUR free speech)
    Things that you might not deem important to yourself, you don’t mind them being censored? (e.g. Porn what else is there that you do not like or don’t find important, religion, politics, hair colour?)

    This is not about what’s being censored so much as the principle itself. Of course people like to use porn as an example here because it has a close relation to child pornography, but let’s image that you’re not allowed to visit a bunch of websites, whether they be news sites or blogs, purely because they might have a particular political bias, how do you feel about such censorship now – and even if they are political statement that you do not agree with, don’t you agree that other people should be allowed to read this information?

    Neil Gaiman couldn’t have said it better in his post:

    If you accept — and I do — that freedom of speech is important, then you are going to have to defend the indefensible. That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don’t say or like or want said.

  • markfiend

    It is precisely expression that is offensive (or at least has the potential to offend someone) that needs protection under rights to free expression. After all, if no-one is offended, no-one is going to try to censor it.

  • dawgbone

    David, does china have a lack of pedophil crimes because there aren’t any, or because they aren’t reported?

    Baseball didn’t have a drug problem until they started testing for it.

  • John Woods

    No doubt about it, there has never been a better time to utilize a good, reliable Privacy Service.

    jess
    http://www.anonweb.eu.tc

  • anonymous

    @themightystephen,
    You say trust me, as if we should accept your words on your authority alone. Who are you? What do you know that the rest of the world doesn’t? Where did you learn it?
    Do you really think that way? that if you eliminate the tools for a crime, you eliminate the urges that motivate the crime? If we were all locked up in strait jackets, maybe then this will be a crime free world.

    …Excuse me for that, I just lost my composure for a second. What I meant to say was that you’re gonna have to say more than just ‘trust me’ when the rest of the world is backing their arguments with reason and logic and facts.

  • i

    What I want, is full and complete disclosure from everyone arguing on this issue.

    A secular society needs to be based on secular laws. Letting the religious secretly push their personal agendas in these debates will corrupt the debate itself.

    Are the people opposed to pornography, who are supporters of censorship religious in any way? Would these people be able to walk tall in public if their backgrounds were properly investigated? Or would they be outed as religious fanatics trying to push their religion on the general population?

  • Naumadd

    Let us not gloss over the fact there are legitimate reasons for showing children in the nude, as many Renaissance-era paintings of the baby “Jesus” or John the Baptist et al can attest. Certainly, there must be plenty of nude photos of many of us as babies in photo albums someplace or another. Fear mongering over every instance of nudity – child or not – is breeding an atmosphere that will see innocent people jailed because another doesn’t like their smiling at, talking to or relating to any child not their own. It’s one thing if an individual causes harm to any other, it’s quite a different thing for you to make a criminal out of another because of your irrational paranoias. We as a culture needn’t stand for the second any more than we must stand for the first. The human body isn’t a thing to be feared. Let us remember that it is clothing that is unnatural – not nudity. To be comfortable with one’s own nudity ought to be a given. To be comfortable with the nudity of another ought also be a given. Those who find both uncomfortable are they with a dysfunction, not those who appreciate nudity. It is not the pornographer who ought to be jailed but rather those uncomfortable with nudity who need psychological treatment. They are developmentally delayed.

    At any rate, on the topic of censorship, if one isn’t allowed freedom of expression for one’s bad ideas, there can be no rebuttal to those bad ideas. Without rebuttal, you may get the wrong impression there is no opposition to your thoughts and hence turn thought into action. Let us not censor anyone simply for thinking and saying wrong things – only for their wrong deeds. Let us also be certain that the deed is wrong without question lest we turn our entire population into criminals simply for breathing.

  • OmegaWolf747

    The people who believe in online controls, filters and censorship are the ones who should be banned from the Internet. I like the way the Net is now, an anarchist’s paradise!

  • Anonymous

    JR Raphael of PC World writes that the IWF case is particularly disturbing because it illustrates private censorship, even if only lasted a couple of days. Why should a private organization be allowed to assert “its own right, outside of the law, to determine what legally acceptable content you should or should not be allowed to see?”

    Don’t businesses do this everyday by limiting what their employees have access to during business hours?

  • BiggerThanThis

    kumarei Says:
    December 10th, 2008 at 10:44 am

    With child pornography, the line is easy. It’s bad because it causes harm, mental and physical, to a child.

    I think the same argument could be brought forward on a very large number of areas – from food companies to fashion magazines. When will we understand that we are horrified at the harm done by a sexual assault whle turning a blind eye to the sanctioned, for profit assault on those same girls by corporations. As bad of an example as this is I’ll say it anyway – not every woman is raped, yet every woman from a very early age is manipulated and coerced ‘legally’ with a similar result. Low self esteem, negative body image, isolation, despair…

    Why can’t we make it illegal to market thongs to 8 year olds AND pursue them as sexual objects?

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  • sporkbox

    As bad of an example as this is I’ll say it anyway – not every woman is raped, yet every woman from a very early age is manipulated and coerced ‘legally’ with a similar result. Low self esteem, negative body image, isolation, despair…

    You’re going to need to back that up with something that’s not so sensationalist and extreme-feministic. It’s a fact that we all face trials as we grow up. Men and women both face their own set of challenges on top of the ones that everyone faces. In the case of pornography, it’s a matter of employment, not oppression. You can make that assertion of assault when you can prove that the majority of pornography studios employ women against their will.

    If anything, this prudish society (rooted in Christianity, might I add) we live in is to blame for encouraging shame of the human body.
    I think I’ll play devil’s advocate here. How do we know child pornography is universally, without a doubt, harmful to every single child that’s been involved with it? How do we know the intentions of every person who’s ever photographed a person under the age of 18 were malicious or predatory?
    We don’t. Dealing with it by saying “you can’t do this” will only incite the people who want to do it to do it anyway. Defiance runs deep in humanity. Tell us we can’t have something, and we’ll take it anyway. A lot of crimes in this country (US) could be alleviated by simply changing our idea of what’s “wrong”. For example, there are plenty of people sitting in jail right now for victimless crimes (marijuana possession being one of the biggest). Instead of putting a blanket over certain situations (e.g. child pornography) why not judge things on a case-by-case basis like any logical, rational person would?
    Assuming “There have been cases where children were psychologically scarred for life over child porn, therefore it must be outlawed unconditionally” is foolhardy and tells volumes about one’s ability to handle situations. It’s the same as saying “I don’t like this, get it away from me.” We have a judicial system for a reason. If someone is found to be a sexual predator, they can be charged for it. Simply taking pictures of a nude child is not predatory. Circumstances and intent are just as important as the acts themselves.

  • amolpatil2k

    We live in a small world where actual power is hidden and centralized. On the other hand, the Net is about freedom of speech. Clearly, centralized power and the Net cannot coexist. We all know that centralized power is well entrenched so it is the Net that would kind of have to back off. This backing off manifests itself in many many ways. For instance, malware, P2P clogging, complexity and cost of Internet Access, sluggish rollout, not standard components, obsolescence, information overload, lack of customization and many many other factors. Because of the Nature of the Net, censorship has still not happened but it will happen along a path of least resistance.

  • Lesley Dewar

    just posted the links to Jim Stewart’s You Tube Videos on Censorship on both my sites http://is.gd/dwYo and http://is.gd/dMU0