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The internet is easy to censor

Posted by Graeme in Internet,Politics at 4:56 pm on Wednesday, 10 December 2008

It has often been said that the internet is hard to censor because “it treats censorship as a defect and routes around it”. This could not be more wrong, the internet is the easiest medium to censor.

The Internet Watch Foundation proved this by its recent banning of an image because it might be illegal.

Although the IWF did back down, that was a result of the sheer absurdity of a ban on accessing an image over the internet that was openly available in shops, and the public reaction to a ban on an influential and popular site. An internet only image on a lesser known site would have been banned permanently.

Consider what the IWF has to do to ban a web site or page, compared to what is necessary to ban a printed work. To ban a book:

  1. The police investigate and gather evidence of what exactly is being sold.
  2. The papers are sent to the Crown Prosecution Service which then decides whether it is worth taking to court.
  3. Barristers are briefed, summons issued, etc.
  4. It must then be proved in court to be illegal. The court decides.
  5. There is then the risk that even a successful ban will be overturned by a higher court.

All this is fairly simple with really obscene material that is clearly illegal, but the system ensures that it really does have to be illegal to be banned.

To ban a website:

  1. The IWF adds it to its list.

That is all. There is no procedure, no need to go to court before an impartial judge, no appeal against mistakes and abuses.

It is also easy to implement an internet ban. There is a comparatively small number of internet service providers who need to implement the ban, and most of them update their lists automatically.

Certainly the knowledgeable can use proxy server and the like to read banned sites, but the majority of people will not. It is not, in fact, easy to find free proxies that work reliably. In addition, the moment you use a paid proxy service, you draw attention.

That is just part of the greater ability of governments to enforce internet bans, because they have greater ability to monitor what people are doing. You can buy a book for cash at a book shop, and the government has no way of knowing that you own it. View a banned, suspicious or embarrassing website (for example a copy of banned material at another URL) and your internet service provider can (and does in many countries, including the UK) record the fact that you have done so.

As for routing around damage, you can do that with physical media too. You can have a banned book sent to you from another country, as many people did with Spycatcher. The chance of being caught smuggling a book are far lower than those of being caught viewing a web page at another URL or via a proxy.

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