No Comment: Freedom On The Web Is Not Always Worldwide

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Just three days before local elections, the Turkish government blocked its citizens from using Twitter and YouTube. The ban lasted 67 days and was only lifted by Turkey’s telecommunication authority (TIB) after the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the ban violated Turks’ free speech rights and ordered the ban be lifted.

Recently Chinese Internet services blocked searches for the phrase mìsh? b?ng (???). The term relates to the speculation surrounding government probes into public officials linked to the Communist Party which are under investigation for corruption. China currently has 618 million Internet users and 281 million users of popular microblogging sites known collectively as Weibo. The action to block popular Internet sites is believed to have been ordered by the Chinese government, wishing to maintain strict control and secrecy for top governmental leaders. In China and other repressive countries censorship of the Internet is the norm.

As recently reported in the USA Today, here are the top ten Internet-censored countries in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists:

  1. North Korea. All websites are under government control. About 4% of the population has Internet access.
  2. Burma. Authorities filter e-mails and block access to sites of groups that expose human rights violations or disagree with the government.
  3. Cuba. Internet is available only at government controlled “access points.” Activity online is monitored through IP blocking, keyword filtering and browsing history checking. Only pro-government users may upload content.
  4. Saudi Arabia. Around 400,000 sites have been blocked, including any that discuss political, social or religious topics incompatible with the Islamic beliefs of the monarchy.
  5. Iran. Bloggers must register at the Ministry of Art and Culture. Those that express opposition to the mullahs who run the country are harassed and jailed.
  6. China. China has the most rigid censorship program in the world. The government filters searches, blocks sites and erases “inconvenient” content, rerouting search terms on Taiwan independence or the Tiananmen Square massacre to items favorable to the Communist Party.
  7. Syria. Bloggers who “jeopardize national unity” are arrested. Cybercafés must ask all customers for identification, record time of use and report the information to authorities.
  8. Tunisia. Tunisian Internet service providers must report to the government the IP addresses and personal information of all bloggers. All traffic goes through a central network. The government filters all content uploaded and monitors e-mails
  9. Vietnam. The Communist Party requires Yahoo, Google and Microsoft to divulge data on all bloggers who use their platforms. It blocks websites critical of the government, as well as those that advocate for democracy, human rights and religious freedom.
  10. Turkmenistan. The only Internet service provider is the government. It blocks access to many sites and monitors all e-mail accounts in Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail.

For those living in free societies it is difficult to understand the effects unconstrained Internet censorship has on people. The United States and other democratic countries have Internet censorship, but it is usually carried out by individuals and organizations engaging in self-censorship for moral, religious or business reasons in order to conform to social norms or out of fear of legal liability. In countries that guarantee their citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression, censorship has always been a field of intense debate and at times throughout history, outright verbal and physical brawls. The question as to what constitutes conduct and material worthy of outright censorship is a conversation that will never be abated in a free society. The question always comes down to who is making the decision as to what is unacceptable and what is their authority to impose the censorship upon the whole of the community.

While freedom of thought and expression is most often the topic of censorship, marketing and advertising of commerce, whether via the Internet or through non-digital channels, experiences the same restrictive limitations as those imposed on thought and expression. By limiting illegal commerce and products that market to consumers over a certain legal age, like alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, democratic societies are signaling a willingness to accept some enforcements to total freedom of marketing content and product distribution.  Certain restraints to conduct and conversation that is deemed overtly offensive by a society, will be enforced by the norms established by that society even in the most liberated of democracies, but unfettered censorship of either ideas or commerce should be feared and opposed by free democratic people everywhere.

John F. Kennedy once said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values.  For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

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