(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

How The Internet is blocked in some countries

When it comes to whole countries, censorship has always existed, but the Internet makes it much harder: the quantity of information to block is immensely greater than in the past, and much of it is usually published from computers abroad, which cannot be shut down. There are several partial solutions to this: one of them may be to make it easy, or possible, to surf the Internet only from public computers, as happens in China. Other methods to limit Internet access from Chinese points of access include canceling some addresses or domain names from the lists of known destinations or redirecting them to other websites.

According to a study of the Open Net Initiative (ONI), Internet filtering in China in 2004 was already based on multiple levels of legal and technical control. Thousands of websites were blocked in this way, and not only those containing pornographic material: even University websites, as well as health or news portals were filtered. The Maxthon Web browser has become very popular in China just because it makes easier to bypass some of these restrictions.

Censored topics in other countries also include web diaries and pages addressed to linguistic minorities. ONI also released a report about increased Internet censorship in Vietnam. Similar things have been documented in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In Europe there are proposals since 1999 to “promote safer use of the Internet” through an Action Plan which should be part of “a coherent set of policies at EU level to deal with illegal and harmful content on the Internet”.

Who makes this level of censorship technically possible?

Some of the countries mentioned in the previous paragraph, as well as several western nations rely upon commercial software developed by for-profit western companies to perform filtering. Back in 2005, Iran acknowledged that it outsourced many of the decisions about what its citizens can access on the Internet to a United States company, which in turn profits from its complicity in such a regime. Ignoring for a moment the democracy and free speech issues, a basic problem here is that the software used, being out of the control of its user (the Iranian Government) is prone to over blocking, errors and lack of transparency.

Is it right in some situations? If yes, when, why and how?

Indiscriminate, government-mandated blocks are wrong, no question about that, and assuming they can actually be enforced on a whole country for extended periods of time, is pretty much naive.

The situation is somewhat different when minors are involved and/or the computers and Internet connection have been provided and paid for for some specific task. This is especially true with computers provided by schools: blocking access to websites devoted to games, adult material, online chat rooms and so on, is really something you can and should ask for without any fear of looking old, out of the Ark, oppressive or narrow-minded. In those cases there is nothing to discuss: filtering access is done to save time and money. No distraction on study time paid by family or the State: Freedom has nothing to do with this, it’s just a matter of efficiency.

The only risk in this case is when you don’t take charge and responsibility. If you approve or require restricted Internet access for your children at home or in their school, for example, you, or somebody you know, trust and can actually control, have to decide what is admissible and what must be blocked. Nobody else. Practically speaking, this means using Internet filtering software that lets you, or your delegates, write the whole blacklist. The Digifreedom website lists some software tools that give you this freedom.