Blocking or severely limiting access to the Web, however, comes with a high economic and political cost. Governments that don’t let their citizens online are among the world’s most repressive; increasingly, a country cannot be part of the global economy without an information-based society. Countries like China and Iran take a more sophisticated approach, allowing broad access to the Internet but limiting the dissemination of certain kinds of critical content. This requires manpower and technology. In China, for example, an army of tens of thousands of Internet monitors scrutinizes the Web and removes “objectionable” content. The government blocks individual Web sites and key-word searches, monitors the use of certain terms (“Falun Gong,” “Tiananmen Square”), and arrests those who post commentary critical of the regime. In one recent case, the dissident poet Liu Xiaobo was sentenced on Christmas Day to eleven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
But China also understands that broad Web and cellular access—China has more online users than any other country—is necessary for global business. Most Chinese citizens operate happily inside a “walled garden,” where they are permitted to peruse a variety of information and even post certain kinds of critical comments. According to Rebecca MacKinnon, a China expert who is writing a book on the subject, most people in China lack the technical means or the even the interest to access blocked news sites, like the BBC Chinese service or YouTube. China is also putting pressure on the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), requiring them to serve as surrogate censors.
Iranians, too, have had broad access to the Web, a technology that has been embraced by the country’s conservative leadership, many of whom host blogs and Twitter. But Iran’s Internet connection to the world is in the hands of Telecommunications Company of Iran, a company in which a consortium associated with the Revolutionary Guards recently bought a 50 percent stake. Cyrus Farivar, a San Francisco-based tech journalist and Iran expert, calls control of the Internet “the biggest weapon in the government’s arsenal.” The number of international gateways that allow Internet traffic to enter or exit Iran is in the “single digits,” according to Farivar.
Restrictions of online content are not limited to repressive countries. Germany, for example, bans Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis and requires Internet companies like Google and Yahoo to comply with government regulations. In India, according to a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, Google has been forced to remove or censor content that could offend religious minorities or powerful political figures. The big fear of press-freedom advocates is creeping censorship under the guise of law enforcement or anti-pornography legislation.
Governments can also attack the third part of the information assembly line, blocking people from accessing certain kinds of information on the Web. Many repressive governments—including Iran, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and China—use filters to block critical Web sites, a process known as blacklisting. Whitelisting, which is also widely practiced, refers to authorizing approved Web sites and blocking the rest. Increasingly, governments also require Internet café owners to police the sites that their clients visit; some have installed software that allows the government to do this remotely.
Press freedom groups like CPJ have traditionally focused their attention on defending news gatherers. These strategies remain crucial, but in order to more effectively defend press freedom in the new global information environment we need to devote more resources to defending the Internet itself. CPJ, for example, is adding a full-time Internet advocacy coordinator in 2010 to do just that. Our goal is to get media organizations to understand that they have an enormous stake in the outcome.
To be effective, journalists, media organizations, and press-freedom groups need to form alliances with the ISPs and tech companies that maintain the Internet’s infrastructure. These companies are coming under tremendous pressure from repressive governments to enforce government censorship. Too often they have complied and have been justly criticized for doing so.
That is why Google’s recent stand in China is so important. Refusing to comply with Chinese government censorship “was a statement that doing the moral and ethical thing is good for business,” says Rebecca MacKinnon. “When your business is transmitting, publishing, amplifying, and hosting the most intimate details of people’s lives and their most sensitive political conversations, then your users have to trust that you’re not going to be tossing information to the nearest dictator.”