Internet Censorship and National Security

Peace everyone.
I’ve recently started doing some generic research regarding internet usage and its impact on society. I’ve come to find that in more ways than one, it is both a source of benefit as well as harm to the human race. With internet penetration increasing to a whopping 26.6% internationally, it has become a major propaganda medium, that helps shape perceptions all over the world.Internet Penetration @ 26.6% 4-19-2010
Its penetration is most within the US (North America76.2%), and most people would arguably consider the internet a mass media propagation tool for the US (which I do not agree to, to an extent). Its penetration into eastern countries within the past two decades however, has helped shape perceptions globally, increasing cultural influence of nations with greater internet penetration over those who are relatively newer to it. Apart from effective communication tools, online businesses and the like, it has also helped create informational databases like Wikipedia, which can easily be classified as mankind’s first free knowledge base -one that grows by itself.
So in a word, internet= information. But the question here is – Credibility. Is everything that we see/read  on the internet credible? Should there be some kind of regulation over internet publishing that validates credibility of published information?
Might seem like an infringement on freedom of expression, but most countries do exercise a certain level of regulation over what their populace can /cannot see over the web. China for instance, has a ‘Great firewall of China’ in place, their rationale being that they wish to stop usage of illicit content (porn sites) within their populace. Another unstated reason would be preservation of Chinese culture over western, and keeping their people restricted to sources of information that only the Chinese Govt. deems credible.
National security has also become an issue, with rebels and terrorists using the internet as a means of protest and victimization, thereby creating sentiments of rebellion within targeted nations. Nations are also at war in the virtual world, with one publicizing its perspective over the other. My country itself is going through a phase like this, where people are dividing into 2 sets of value structures, both heavily influenced by alternate forms of media propagation, internet or otherwise.
So the question really is- Should countries resort to internet content regulation? Should censorship over the internet be implemented at state levels, or is it better to let the virtual world be FFA – just like the wild west? How can a nation ensure that its ideologies and cultural values stay intact, with/without imposing such restrictions?
Comments appreciated, with rationale.
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  • No, I don’t think countries should censor the Internet in any way. You have to take the bad with the good. The great thing about the Internet is that it is open and anyone can publish anything they like. I’d like to draw a comparison to print media, books specifically. Someone can publish whatever they want there too regardless of credibility. People must decide for themselves what they will read and what slant they will apply to it. Censoring the Internet creates an environment where the ‘official story’ is the only one allowed to be published. I think we all are aware that the official story is usually the least accurate one.

  • That begs the question, who determines credibility?
    If it is nation-states only, then we are left with the assurance that truth will be sacrificed to expediency. That’s why the Right of Free Speech is such an important part of any Democratic experiment – be it a nation or the Internet.
    China is most definitely not the model we want to emulate. Credibility is best determined by the individual – someone with the ability to analyze information critically and make their own assessments rather than accepting any one source of information on faith as absolute truth. Our efforts would be much better spent educating people to think for themselves rather empowering nations or other powerful entities so that they can determine what we’re allowed to think.

  • Wow, Zohaib. That’s an amazing question. Living in North America, as I do, I rarely think about that sort of thing because North American culture dominates web content.
    I think that restricting content should be limited to things that are illegal. In my country, racism and child abuse are illegal and that sort of content is removed. Of course, it’s a difficult game. Unless you spend an enormous amount of effort to approve content before it is posted, you can only police it after posting it. But, you need to have a solid basis for selecting which material to remove; resorting to law is the only way to go, but only for countries that have a mature legal system. Blocking content based on the values of a particular group is biased and possibly discriminatory. Most countries do not have a perfectly homogeneous population; there is enough variety that one set of values should not dominate.
    Another point that I want to make is that cultures and values change. The older people get, the harder it is for them to understand. And young people are impatient with the “older generation” because they are so inflexible. This is normal human behaviour, and it should be accepted. A culture that does not grow will stagnate, rot, and die. Cultural blending is a way for the world to stay strong.
    Using myself as an example, when I was a child our schools did “Christmas Concerts” where the kids performed plays and sang songs about Christmas. My children’s schools have “Winter Concerts” where they celebrate Christmas, Hannuka, Kwanza, and the *spirit* that these events embody. This is a big change, but I love it because it promotes awareness, tolerance, and peace.
    That’s the happy side of it. But like you said, there is a truly dark side: crime. Just like in the physical world, crime must be punished. But on the Internet, you can hide your identity, masquerade as other people, commit crimes from the other side of the planet, and so on. These are still illegal, but the police do not have good tools for tracking these criminals down.
    I think that the Internet needs better authentication. People should have access only if they are willing to accept the responsibility that goes with it. There could even be tiers of authentication. Anonymous users may be restricted in what they can do; maybe they can just use reference materials, for example. A higher level of authentication may open up more. The other benefit is that authentication will let reputations be established; that way you can determine whether to trust a source.
    The newspaper industry is facing this dilemma. The concern about the Internet being the death of print media is overrated, in my opinion. There is a higher level of journalistic value in the print media and this can transfer to the Web. Certain regular writers have their own reputation, and it will be the same no matter where they write. When you buy content, print or electronic, you pay for the reputation of the content provider.
    The bottom line is that nations have to embrace the changes that the Internet brings and find a way to work *with* them, not against them. The Internet is an important cultural tool; I read news from around the world and follow the links that I find there. Other people will too, and learn more about your nation and it’s culture. Your nation could use the Internet to show it’s citizens and the world the wonders of your country and it’s culture.

  • think the only real answer is that there isn’t one. I think it is the duty of citizens to observe how their government (and others) are policing all things, not just the internet and then to speak up. It’s not just a question of censor ship but also of spying, seeking patterns of behavior and then using this information. In many cases, bureaucrats come to a conclusion based on INCOMPLETE information and take the wrong action. The incomplete story gets a life of its own and there is no way to correct it. Just as bad, investigative resources are used to chase this butterfly of inaccuracy rather than go after the real bad guy who, because of his evil, has covered his tracks effectively.
    I’d like to address Mr. Honaker. The Internet is not “open”. You do not “own” your information as you do with a book. Everything on the internet is, if not controlled by a government, is controlled by a corporation. There is this illusion that there is this single, glorious, free, internet that is like air, there for all to use. This is not true and it is not true for any kind of electronic media. I wonder whose “official story” Mr. Honaker is talking about. Is it the corporations or is it the government? Personally, I prefer democratic control rather than rather limited and short term seeking after profit. Ever notice the internet ad’s which are frequently for questionable or even downright fraudulent products? Is what you read on media outlets “truth”? Is what people then parrot from those outlets more true?
    All I say is look at things realistically, not in some kind of an ideal of how you wish them to be.
    There is another problem too which is essentially that people are too connected, information spreads too quickly and the news cycle is now down to seconds. A human neural network that transfers information too quickly has a seizure. Are we approaching a kind of social seizure? At other times in history when there was a sudden increase in media, there was a social paroxysm. Examples are: Roman building of Roads which lead to the worlds first Imperium and then the end of debate on Christian Theology. Printing and the French Revolution – a time of horror and mob rule. Another is Radio and the growth of evangelism in the 1930’s. Then TV and the McCarthy red baiting and anti-communism which was very much a product of radio and TV.
    To a considerable extent, these periods of upset also ended from the very media which fed them. Roman Roads also fed the Muslim conquests of the Rashidun period which opened the world to the enlightenment and started the ball rolling toward a deeper study of christianity. Print also lead to a period of study and knowledge and the democratization of Europe. Radio was the tool that President Roosevelt used to bring the sense of common purpose which lead to the end of the Depression and the success of WWII. Finally, Senator McCarthy was finally discredited in the first Televised Senate hearing which opened America to Post war Liberalism.
    Whether you like him or not, President Obama has also used the Internet to spread his message. That is still on going but the cycle continues.
    In this sense, Mr. Honaker is right. The new medium leads to a period of chaos, then one of renewal and hope. I don’t think this can be defeated so easily. I don’t think it is as easy as it looks. History tells us that ideas refine and improve, not the reverse. We must be vigilent, we must continue to re-ask this question and above all, to listen to the message that is coming to us. Sometimes it begins as a small whisper.

  • Interesting question, and a broad topic indeed. Would people benefit from some sort of quality control over content, is the first question you ask. My guess is that most people prefer to read quality content they can trust. This in and by itself should be separated from the issue of censorship IMHO.
    Interesting development is that recently a Dutch blog has been sentenced by the Dutch “ombudsman” of Journalism for publishing incorrect information. While some might consider this an unwanted development, others have pointed out that, actually, this means blogs are being treated similar to printed media are are considered professional journalists and held by their standards.
    So, more quality control over web content would be something many users would appreciate. We all know we can’t trust the Internet, but it would be nice to have a certain basic guarantee that well-known sites try their best to provide honest information.
    As for nation-driven censorship, you write that “most” countries are doing this, however, my impression is certainly different. Only a few countries worldwide undertake active steps to block content, like China as you pointed. The Arab world would be another region where states exert control over the content.
    I believe that prior to judging others, we should respect and understand the other. Point in case, most Chinese don’t seem to mind the censorship since the state is blocking content they are not interested in. If the Chinese don’t really care, why should non-Chinese care?
    For a westerner like myself, it’s easy to judge the Chinese for being totalitarian etc, but the elected government of China should be able to represent the interests of its voters as it sees fit. Same goes for other countries/regions in the world where state censorship exists.
    Perhaps a more relevant question is if western companies, like Google, or Microsoft, should assist countries with this. There is (or at least should) be a different between understanding other people’s goals although you might not agree, and actively contributing towards achieving such goals.

  • Wow, huge question and I doubt that I am going to be able to answer it all to my satisfaction given that we are limited to the length of our responses here :).
    First – your definition (Internet = information) is correct, but I don’t think there is EVER any implication that equally so ‘information = truth’. I would rather state it as ‘information = opinion’. You cannot always qualify with any degree of certainty that ‘today’s truth = tomorrows truth’ given the fact that since truth is based upon discovery of evidence and that can change day to day… but I digress. This is probably a good subject for a blog post for me and I will add it to my list for when I have time to dedicate to the required effort.
    Second – Regulation. As far as I am concerned it is a ridiculous idea to even consider attempting to regulate the internet. At first maybe that sounds like a bad attitude, but when you consider the ‘intent’ of the internet was originally to foster the free and open communication between people then any talk of regulation automatically defeats that charter. IMHO any attempt at regulation will simply lead us down a long road that never ends. But how do we resolve the obvious issues? We simply impose laws on ‘content’ regardless of method of delivery. I know it is not quite THAT simple, but I think over the long term it would be the most effective from a time, materials, and ethical standpoint. Is it perfect? No, but then again in a world where stuff changes so fast, nothing is ever going to be perfect.
    National security – Biggie here. Not sure really how to address this and I have thought about it for a long time. I honestly don’t think that you can have TRUE national security AND offer a shared communications medium that allows everyone to openly communicate. The notions are counter productive to one another. You either have a closed and secure network or you have an open and unsecured one. Plain and simple. Unfortunately to address this would require the use of multiple independent infrastructures. Not something that I am against as an architect myself, but I understand the other implications (ie: cost, etc…) that this implies. It all comes down to a balance that most business struggle with every day. I have no clear answer here, sorry, only more questions myself 🙂
    Content regulation – I am 100% against censorship, but that does not mean that I think everyone deserves exposure to everything all the time (ie: age restrictions on adult materials). I simply think that no one entity has the right to judge what content I have access to outside of any established legal restrictions that have been established. If someone wants to post their opinion on a subject they should have that right provided that they follow the basic ‘stuff’ that we all basically understand (ie: you can’t yell fire in a crowded movie house if there is no fire, etc…)
    As far as cultural values go, personally the world as a whole needs to start to look at the larger picture. As borders change, we have more people closer together, interacting at deeper and closer levels the term ‘culture’ is changing daily and we need to start considering multiculturalism a lot more than we have in the past. While I think it is critical for everyone to understand their backgrounds and where they came from, what has influenced them over the years, and all of that ‘stuff’ that provides each and every one of us our own unique ‘thing’ that makes ‘us’ an individual, we also need to understand that we are rapidly becoming part of a global ‘race’. We are all the people of ‘earth’ and until we start to understand that and work at that aspect we have some larger issues to deal with.

  • The internet is to 2010 as television was to the 1960’s. Value it as you will. . .

  • No, there should be no limitations. As with conversation, the exchanging of ideas is what stimulates participation.
    There may be circumstances – like yelling fire in a crowded theater – where the content is inflamatory and some regulation is necessary.

  • If you see the internet as a method to share ideas globally then state regulation and content filtering is a bad thing, surely.
    I suspect the US sees the internet this way, but I suspect the rest of the world does not share their view. I’m British, that’s practically American, so I get where they’re coming from.
    But would a person logging on from eg Iran, Afghanistan, India, Korea think like me? Or would they prefer to use the internet in a way that suits their way of thinking?
    I think it’s a shame that China has the Great (Fire)Wall. But I understand it. I think it’s a shame that other countries restrict sites from their users, but I understand that too.
    I think it will take a lot of time before we all trust each other and at that point, hopefully, the various Great (Fire)Walls will go the same way as the Berlin Wall.

  • Internet should be censored because it is overloaded with the propaganda, lots of garbage and the wrong PR.
    All the countries which have lower penetration of the internet will be healthier countries in a long term.
    Each country should develop and improve their society and their economy in their own way, according to their own DNA and their own tradition and culture, using internet as much as they like.

  • I don’t think the Internet can be censored. Hell, most governments can’t even protect themselves from motivated hackers.

  • I personally appose ANY form of censorship, except as it may impact on children. I do not believe that there is ANY individual or group of individuals or government entities that are more qualified that I am to protect me from reading or seeing any material at all.
    As an adult I vote with my feet. That is to say, if I see something that I don’t like or I walk away. The same with the Internet, if there is something that I don’t care for, I am fully capable of leaving a web site, deleting e mails or closing a browser.
    I surely don’t need anyone to protect me from myself.

  • First Amendment. If someone says something I consider to be psychotic or hate speech or threatening, I get to flame or report it, and other people get to flame me, and everyone gets to make an immense fuss, while let’s hope that the right people are watching the potentially dangerous stuff.
    With the exception of child pornography and other criminal activity, I see no need to censor the Net.

  • Dont think there is any national level security needed. Your question links to my very old concern: most parents dont spend the right quality of time with their children. Working with children for a long time now, my concern is that values are dying when children are spending more time at tuition centres, qari saabs, maids and/or other children in the house/neighbourhood since a large number of parents choose not take this valuable time out. Im not generalizing but I personally feel that when children have had the right attention and teachings from parents, their cultural values remain strong and while growing up, those values play a very important role in making key decisions.
    My very close and long time friend is a great example. Her daughter (7yrs old) was born and brought up in the U.S. while other children her age are blogging, she is not allowed to browse the internet without adult supervision, she still reads the old fashioned way 🙂
    My cousin living in Dubai has a 4 year old son who, since, he could talk is conscious of the importance of alhamdolillah, assalam o alaikum, allah hafiz…so there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel if we go back to basics 🙂

  • I am personally against censorship over the internet. But while we can argue all day about it being there for everyone, there is some entity that “OWNS” a particular part of that network. It really is THAT entity’s prerogative what it wants to do with it and how it wants to administer it.
    If China wants to censor content on the internet within its boundaries, then it really is their choice and it should be respected. If someone doesn’t like the flavor of 300-400 million strong slice of the cake, then they are free to leave (like Google is threatening to).
    As for the ethics of the “Great Firewall of China”, I really couldn’t care less! If open information on the internet is a threat to their culture and/or political stability, well I think there are more important things than internet access to Facebook for organizing a protest and playing Farmville.


  • Gerald Pellett

    I live in the U.S., grew up with Freedom of Speech and believe that history shows that the U.S. system works pretty good. So forgive my bias in answering your questions. Information is a powerful tool. To use it requires an ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Censorship is self-defeating. Once people realize that information was withheld or they’ve been manipulated then they rebel. But a worse consequence of censorship is that it stymies innovation and growth. Censorship just serves the agendas of a few despots. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for some censorship, such as keeping pornography from kids. But you can’t allow censorship to take away a person’s ability to think. If you can explain ideologies and cultural values in terms that make sense, and allow individuals to evaluate them and make informed choices, then there is no danger to harming those ideologies and cultural values. People will embrace and perpetuate them. You can’t keep disagreeable information off the Internet, but you can fight it by developing good decision makers.

  • Padric O'Rouark

    What you are inferring is censorship of content.
    For example, in 1951 the film titled “The Miracle” upset a lot of Catholics because it’s plot was about “Saint Joseph”, who villainously impregnates “Nanni”, a disturbed peasant who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary.
    It was banned in many countries and the New York Board of Regents revoked the film’s license on grounds that it was “sacrilegious.”. The US Supreme Court later ruled that it was unconstitutional to revoke the films license and doing so violated freedom of speech. It remained banned in several countries.
    What this illustrates is that when it comes to the internet there is no existing “supreme court” or other single agency that regulates content and controls the internet. The law at the local level of countries may make rulings and shut it off but on the world stage it is not possible to lock down. The US military invented the internet backbone but it has grown far beyond its original roots and we do not have a worldwide governmental regulatory oversight for the “worldwide” net.
    Parental controls are something I could advocate and certainly there is software that can locally view (or shut down) unhealthy web surfing habits. But “regulation” infers a regulatory agency. So whose ideals and belief systems will get trampled if pluralism is dishonored?
    Your question also brings up the issue of closed cultures and the effect of the internet. When religious morays are offended or closed and repressive governments get criticized they do not have the means to cope with civic unrest without resorting to violence. The devil is in the details they say. Thus you have bans, censorship and so forth. The message is that the world is not fully integrated. The twenty first century is a problem for third or fifth century thinking. These many opposing values are not very amicable to modernization.
    There is an interesting fictional futurist book titled, “Killing Time” written by Caleb Carr that is about the long reaching effects of the internet and information. Good read.

  • I think the internet is a fabulous tool to connect people globally … how they want to use it is their business.

  • I disagree totally with Christine’s answer… A country which limits the free speech and open dialog with the world is simply unacceptable in the 21st century… A culture of paranoia and control has no place in the civilized world and will, in time, ultimately fail…
    The fact that we can openly criticize our political leaders in forums such as in the Linkedin q&a would land many ranters here in jail in China…
    An open world is a better world… period…

  • Aside from making the world a much smaller place by extending the reach of all of us and broadening our knowledge, I fail to see how the Internet as an information disseminator, with all its strengths and weaknesses, differs from any other ‘news’ vehicle, be it print, television or radio. I think your reactionary stance is poorly anchored on a slippery slope.

  • If someone did censor the internet, who would censor the Censors?! 😉

  • LOL
    “Most people might not know this but the US govt./Military has the strongest, most effective policy/tools for content regulation over the internet – not publicized of course”
    The U.S Government also has “brown guns” that make your intestines do a core dump…
    Did you see the news about people working for the SEC spent much of their time surfing porn?
    I think you should reference TCP/IP as defined in RFC 675. Anyone can filter content. Ultimately, everything ends up as packets over a network – Iran during the election uprising is a good example of how this works – remember the Twitter thing?
    Thanks for the laughs…
    PS – if the question is credibility, take Wikipedia as an example of accuracy & credibility as a working model. And don’t forget, higher education institutions had much to do with bringing the Internet to the world from its origins as ARPANET/MILNET. And how RFC work to dial in on what final form looks like – as one would expect from intellectuals – that’s why it’s called Request For Comment.

  • It’s not an amazing question; it’s rather common.
    You posit that the internet is being used to shape public opinion and perception, and that is easily proven. But you neglect to mention that the same public opinion was still externally — and artificially — shaped _before_ the advent of the internet.
    Easily-led sheep have been led easily throughout all human history. TV news of all stripes has been routinely lying to the public, all over the world, since it was invented. Squalid little clerks scribbling with a stick on clay tablets for the pharaohs were fudging the books too.
    In fact, TV news messed with minds _better_ than the internet, because it was only one way and didn’t allow backtalk.
    Should it be censored? Pfui. No censorship has ever resulted in a better society, no matter what the surface veneer. And it never will. Ever seen a picture or video of a book burning? I have, and it’s frightening as hell.
    Nor will it ever be a fitting replacement for the filter that each brain is responsible for installing over itself.

  • Whenever people argue for internet regulation, one must realize that the internet (and the zoo atmosphere that goes with it) is merely an extension of…well…people!
    Should we regulate what people can say, just because it’s not always accurate? Do people not routinely engage in “propaganda” to sway people to vote this way or that, or to promote this cause or that?
    It’s unbelievable how many look at the external environment and question whether this or that so-called “root cause” is the problem.
    People are inaccurate versus accurate.
    People are unbiased and objective versus subjective and self-serving.
    They communicate via the internet, tv, newspapers, op-eds, and even via the “Tea Party” movement.
    So what?!
    There’s nothing going on over the internet that isn’t already being whispered in someone’s ear, or published in some “alternative” or cutting edge publication, well outside the mainstream.
    So no, there should be no censorship where there’s no criminal activity.
    Instead, people who wish for that end result should, instead, bury themselves under a rock and surrounded with a comfortable and protective layer of nerf, to shelter them from reality.
    The internet is merely a medium for the very real communication that comes from other carbon-based lifeforms, aka humanity. You gonna “censor” humanity as a national security risk????
    Now, someone is surely going to come up with a snarky answer about how yes, humans are a threat to our own security, sometimes, but jokes aside, you get the main point.
    Generally, the internet should remain non-censored where there’s no criminal activity. The free-market of ideas, so to speak.
    Clarification added 1 day ago:
    For those under oppressive governments, you can always route your internet traffic through TOR anyways (noting, of course, that the public experimental TOR network has malicious nodes on it, but if looking to bust through an oppressive government “firewall” of censorship, then that’s always going to be an option for people in those nations that hyper-regulate, such as China).
    Clarification added 1 day ago:
    To add, censorship gets humanity nowhere.
    It was imposed on the Jewish people by Antiochus of Syria.
    Jesus Christ was…well…you know That story…
    Salman Rushdie, etc. etc.
    What’s everyone so afraid of that they have to shut up humanity in public forums? Private is one thing, public is quite another.
    The internet is still public and free, as it should be.

  • It is up to the individual to determine the veracity of what they are reading. Yes, one of the downsides of free speech is the issue of less-than-true renditions of facts, but more facts are available now, through the internet, than when all news was controlled by a handfull of media outlets. If we were restricted to mainstream media, would we have ever heard about Monica Lewinsky? Would we have ever heard about so many members of President Obama’s cabinet heaping praise on Mao and Che? You have to take the good with the bad.

  • Dan de la Cruz

    I may not be qualified to answer this question but it seems that you’re looking for balance. What works for others may not work for another, and it depends on priorities. Nations are built for the purposes and benefits of its citizens, when these are defined and the nation knows what its core mission is, then let it be. The internet is just another medium, to be managed according to your goals and values. When it is considered a threat, then the nation must make sure that this threat is not predominantly just the current government’s position but of its citizenry, sometimes governments impose restrictions that handcuff its own people and becomes the ‘threat’ to its own citizens.

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