Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Is the Internet shrinking?

Two potentially unrelated items:

(1) Remember the TV commercial where the guy is surfing the Web and he gets the message, "You have reached the end of the Internet. Please go back."??

(2) My twins (who are twelve) are not allowed to use our computers anywhere except a common area of the house where anybody can walk up and see what they're doing (Just like I watch at least a portion of virtually ever TV show they watch).

I don't need the government to censor the internet to protect my children. That's my job.

But it's coming.

At first the big news was how Google had reached an agreement with the People's Republic of China to provide services that would be filtered by government censors. A Harvard Law School study as far back as 2002 found over 19,000 web sites blocked to Chinese surfers. [Using a different standard, the number of blocked sites rose to 50,000.] One of the strategies that the government uses is to encourage internet surfing through monitored cyber cafes rather than private venues. The primary categories of sits censored were those with sexual content, religious content, or reference to anti-regime political sites regarding both mainland China and Taiwan. You can find a highlight of censored sites here; my favorite is the official web site of the State of Mississippi. I always thought Mississippi deserved anonymity.

Of course our friends in Saudi Arabia also censor the internet big time. A 2004 OpenNet Initiative study discovered this pattern of internet blocking in the Kingdom:

Our research found substantial blocking of provocative attire, Bahai faith, Holocaust, free Web hosting, opposition political groups, and Islamic extremist sites, but the lower filtering rate in this area indicates the ISU does not attempt to prevent access to all such content. Saudi Arabia passively blocks pages on gay / lesbian / bisexual issues, sexuality, women's rights, Israel, politics, and the occult- the ISU responds to block requests, but devotes no special attention to this content. Surprisingly, the Kingdom blocks few sites related to alcohol, most religions (including Judaism), or media. This pattern demonstrates a filtering regime that is more limited and more effective than previously believed.

The most aggressive censorship focused on pornography, drug use, gambling, religious conversion of Muslims, and filtering circumvention tools. Our testing documented cases in which the ISU detected and blocked new pornographic content far faster than Secure Computing updated its own lists for SmartFilter.

In contrast, the low blocking rate of sites on gay and lesbian issues, women's rights, politics, extremist groups, most religions, alcohol, and Israel suggests that the Saudi filtering regime does not target this content. Indeed, we observed a slight decrease in blocking of human rights sites from 2002 to 2004. Saudi Arabia seems to filter these topics only when particular sites are brought to the government's attention rather than by taking active steps to find this material and to block access to it.

The OpenNet Initiative also documents significant government internet censorship in Vietnam, Belarus, Yemen, Tunisia, Burma, Singapore, Iran, Bahrain, the UAE, North Korea, and others.

Now, in the guise of protecting children, internet censorship is coming o a western industrialized democracy in your neighborhood.

Thoughts on Freedom reports on the current Australian plan:

Dr Roger Clarke, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, Quoted in Australian ITbluntly described the proposal as “stupid and inappropriate”.

He said not only was it unworkable, but it was a sinister blow to an individual’s rights to use the internet without censorship.

”Not only will it not work, it is quite dangerous to let the Government censor the net and take control out of the hands of parents,” Clarke said.

”It is an inappropriate thing for them to be doing. Mr. Conroy is like a schoolmaster playing god with the Australian population, all because of the dominance of a moral minority.”

Conroy’s view is that the legislation - compared by critics to Chinese-style internet censorship - will only render unseen the most vile and extreme sites.

”Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation on the internet is like going down the Chinese road,” Conroy said.

”If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree.”

One problem for the Government is that blocking child porn may unintentionally block acceptable sites.

The history of the internet is full of such examples; one blogger found that, due to spamware set to block ads for sex drug Cialis, he was unable to publish the word “socialist”.

Meanwhile, From the Barrel of a Gun reports on a similar initiative in Great Britain. From the click-through to BBC World News:

Internet service providers should offer a two-tier system, with users able to pick content suitable for adults or children, a Tory MP has said.

Hugo Swire said the "default" setting would be for children, with a password or PIN needed for unfiltered material.

A Whitehall department should create a blacklist of unsuitable sites, he said.

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker insisted the government was committed to protecting children, adding the internet was "safe" most of the time....

Mr Swire called for a UK regulatory body for websites, which he dubbed the "internet standards authority", which would create the database of blacklisted sites and update this hourly.

This could work "along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority or the Press Complaints Commission", and would be responsible for policing "harmful content" online.

Among the sites coming into this category would be "glorification of violence and terrorism, pornography, cyber-bullying, suicide, internet gambling and anorexia websites", Mr Swire added.

I know, I know, the slippery slope argument is just an indication of Libertarian paranoia, right?

But there is nothing more fundamental in terms of a parental obligation that the remain aware of our children's social and communication activities, and there is no more fundamental intrusion into parental responsibility than to take that out of our hands.

Eventually, however, this initiative will gain traction in the US. It was first the idea of the cultural conservatives a few years back, who got into a long-running spat with the American Library Association; next, however, you can expect it to come from the far left, where evil internet sites will soon be equated with hate speech that require government intervention to protect our children.

The Democratic Leadership Council justifies this approach by arguing that

with the Internet in over half of American homes and 98 percent of schools, it's no wonder parents are worried. Over 75 percent of Americans believe that children are learning inappropriate behaviors from the Internet. And their concern is real. According to a University of New Hampshire study,

Personal responsibility is difficult, no doubt about it. It is always easier to punt that responsibility to someone else--especially the government--and to take away that responsibility from those who are ready to exercise it.

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