Internet censorship: Let it rot in walled gardens

Attempts to shut us up in walled gardens and curb our online freedoms are impossible to implement and police. The nature of the internet sees to it that they are doomed to fail.

The quandary for governments is that because the web is ubiquitous and transparent it is hard to police and harder to censor. Photo: Shutterstock

John Gilmore, an internet activist who was also one of the co-founders of both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the first free software company, Cygnus Solutions, once wrote that "the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it".

The internet was designed to enable military communications to find their way around points of failure in the event of a nuclear war. If one node fails or "drops certain messages because it doesn't like their subject the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route", according to Gilmore.

Censorship is practised for all kinds of political, social and commercial reasons, and all societies have limits on acceptable behaviour, but the point of the web is that there are no walled gardens and no limits to what we can access. If information wants to get out there, it will.

Regardless of frontiers

The idea that the internet is a universal resource that should be accessible to all is enshrined in the Declaration of Principles of the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) of December 2003, which says, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Such declarations were relatively meaningless before the emergence of the world wide web, which has transformed the possibilities for information exchange and the dissemination of ideas, and how we respond to them.

Beyond the possibilities of static media, the internet can be seen as a democratising force. It has allowed us to interact with our peers across the cultural, racial, political and religious boundaries of the physical world, precisely because there are few barriers to what we say and how we say it, other than the approval or approbation of our peers.

What makes the internet different is that, unlike newspapers or television, it is interactive. We can determine what we read and how we read it. We are the editors and the filters. We can speak and share our vision with our fellow citizens on the opposite side of the globe without the interference of spokesmen or intermediaries.

And unlike newspapers or television, everything we find on the net can be translated into a file, and edited and copied and stored on an anonymous computer a thousand miles or more from its source.

The quandary for governments is that because the web is ubiquitous and transparent it is hard to police and harder to censor. Governments want to control the content 'for our own good' or to inhibit law-breaking, dissent or civil disobedience. The users and the technology want to route around it.

In the UK the effectiveness of a block on access to the Pirate Bay file-sharing website was shortlived, and was bypassed by the use of proxy servers, virtual private networks and other means.

Inside the walled garden

During the Arab Spring of last year an Egyptian activist is said to have tweeted, "We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world." The response of the Egyptian government was to shut down access to the internet.

Consideration of such responses is not restricted to totalitarian regimes. During the riots in England in the summer of 2011, Tory MPs called for social networking sites to be shut down, and such measures have apparently been discussed at the top levels of government.

It's worth noting that a UK police source tweeted in response to such arguments that "active online engagement has helped reduce calls and the spread of untrue rumours". The effectiveness of internet engagement and chatter is not restricted to one point of view.

For a company, a walled garden or a closed platform has different imperatives, especially when it comes to controlling the content we can access from a mobile device.

At first glance the issues are simple. The films, songs, software, texts and images that we download from the internet belong to somebody, "and should be paid for".

The greater difficulty is that the content industries are being redefined by the technology. The newspaper industry is in trouble. The music industry is no longer exclusively defined by the sale of records or CDs.

At the same time there has been a steady movement by corporate bodies to use copyright law, and its kin, patent law, which is a very different animal, as tools to lock down the ownership of ideas.

Intellectual property law may have been conceived to protect the rights of the little man, the individual creator, against the appropriation of ideas and inventions by corporate interests. But in the real world, this is no longer the case. Intellectual property is big business.

A walled garden ties users and developers into a limited subset of outlets and technologies. Some mobile providers, notably Apple, are the sole gatekeepers of their content, and are able to control the technologies, accessories and content available to their users, and to control the fees and policies they impose on their content creators.

Punishing the users

The attempt by content creators to lock down content has other consequences. Unable to stop the distribution of digital copies of copyrighted work on the internet, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Record Industry Association of America have sought to criminalise users, to encourage the others, through a series of highly publicised court cases.

One such case is that of Richard O'Dwyer, a 24-year-old student at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, who is facing extradition to the US where he is charged with conspiracy to commit copyright infringement and criminal infringement of copyright. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of five years.

O'Dwyer's alleged crime is that he created a website,, through which users provided hyperlinks to copyrighted content. The site did not host the copyrighted content.

In January this year Westminster Magistrates' Court ruled that the extradition should go ahead. On 13 March, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, approved the decision. The case is currently under appeal.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, who has campaigned on O'Dwyer's behalf, pointed out that although he is wanted in the US, "O'Dwyer is not a US citizen, he's lived in the UK all his life, his site was not hosted there, and most of his users were not from the US. America is trying to prosecute a UK citizen for an alleged crime which took place on UK soil."

Ironically, much of the content linked to by TVShack users was hosted on US websites, such as YouTube and Google Video. As Wales says, "O'Dwyer always did his best to play by the rules: on the few occasions he received requests to remove content from copyright holders, he complied. His site hosted links, not copyrighted content, and these were submitted by users."

The motive for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the MPAA is to inhibit users from putting links on websites that point to videos that have been uploaded elsewhere without the copyright owners' consent. The hosting sites, the so-called pirates that make this possible, are beyond the reach of the law, and innocuous intermediaries pay the price.

The harmonious society

In Europe even more arbitrary and authoritarian restrictions on basic internet usage have been proposed. A European working group, CleanIT, comprising internet user organisations, internet companies, non-governmental organisations, law-enforcement agencies and governments, and funded by the European Commission has produced a leaked working document for policing a Europe-wide, terrorist-free internet that includes recommendations such as:

  • Knowingly providing hyperlinks on websites to terrorist content must be defined by law as illegal just like the terrorist content itself.
  • On voice-over-IP services, it must be possible to flag users for terrorist activity.
  • Internet companies must allow only real, common names.
  • Social-media companies must allow only real pictures of users.
  • At the European level, a browser or operating system-based reporting button must be developed.
  • Governments will start drafting legislation that will make offering a system to monitor internet activity to internet users obligatory for browser or operating systems as a condition of selling their products in this country or the EU.

These proposals would not only restrict our freedoms, but are impossible to implement and police, and would not work for the purpose they are intended because "the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

Censorship and its intended effect of pushing us into walled gardens do not lead to a harmonious society, as some would wish, but encroach on the web's potential to be an unparalleled repository and resource for information, accurate and inaccurate, about everything and anything, that can be accessed instantaneously. Censorship affects us all.


Richard Hillesley is a writer focusing on Linux, free software and digital rights. He was a software engineer for 17 years and is a former editor of LinuxUser magazine.

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