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Internet censorship gathers steam

By Kevin Voigt
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More than a decade ago -- as the Cold War ended and the technological revolution begun -- many predicted that globalization would usher in a new era of freedom of expression across the planet.

This would occur not for reasons based on human rights or politics, but economics.

The nascent "knowledge economy" was dependent on free-flow of information, the thinking went: government suppression would mean losing a competitive edge.

With Western multinational companies rushing into newly opened communist markets, the influence of global best practices -- and capital investment -- would cement this change.

Besides, the ubiquitous and chaotic networking abilities of the Internet would render censorship impossible. Free speech across the globe was only a matter of time, prognosticators said.

Now time has passed. Globalization has continued apace, spreading throughout former Soviet states and China, to the great profit of local economies and Western multinational companies.

But those predictions about a worldwide end to censorship? Never happened.

In fact, Internet censorship is picking up steam around the world. Thailand banned YouTube after a video was posted belittling the king. In Malaysia, the government is increasing the heat on bloggers, telling mainstream media outlets not to publish information from Web logs.

In Egypt, a blogger has been sentenced to four years in prison based on what he wrote. Pakistan banned Google's blogging service, and China employed a legion of censors to keep the "Great Fire Wall" of China free of content the government deems offensive. (Learn more about how China censors the Internet)

According to the OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration of universities in North America and England, more than a dozen countries worldwide actively censor online content and clamp down on alleged offenders.

"In China, even though a great deal of liberalization is going on, state control of the media like the Internet seems to have become much more strict," says Thomas Parenty, a Hong Kong-based technology consultant and former employee of the U.S. National Security Agency.

Following local laws to gain market entry into China has put U.S.-based technology and information companies like Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. in a difficult position with U.S. lawmakers, who have complained they are aiding governments such as China help clamp down on online dissent.

At a congressional hearing in January, the tech companies asked the government do more to fight for the rights of unrestricted use of technology as an international trade issue.

"The State Department has the tools to engage foreign governments on openness," said Michael Samway, an attorney for Yahoo, according to an Associated Press story. "We do have significant leverage as companies, but the government has the most significant amount of leverage, and we do need the government to be in play."

But how can censors in China -- with an estimated at 137 million online users -- monitor and track such a large volume of content? It's easier than you think, Parenty says.

"There's an interesting disconnect between reality and perception here," he says. "For example, someone who wants to look at pornography but doesn't want to be seen perusing a store in a seedy part of town may have no qualms about pornography searches at home, because of the illusion of anonymity on the Internet ... truth is, it's much easier (for a third party) to track and trace your online habits rather than your physical movements."

Every time someone uses the Internet, the information is bounced along to a number of computers, each of which keep a digital paper trail of information requests.

"The ISP servers are prime places where governments insert software that automatically filters for watchwords," he says. "It's the same technology -- sometimes even the same software -- that the FBI would use when investigating the commission of a crime, just with different watch list of words, such as 'democracy' or 'Falun Gong' (a religious group banned in China)."

Local governments, as Thailand recently showed with YouTube, can also block domain names of Web sites from finding the necessary IP address to reach the host site.

"Its like turning the Web site into an unlisted number in the phone book," Parenty says.

Thailand banned YouTube after a video was posted belittling the king.


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