Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Censorship: The Web Goes Dark

With minimal effort even casual Web users can locate information that many governments, including at times the U.S. government, would prefer to restrict: hardcore pornography, plans for making explosives or illegal drugs, home addresses of government officials and celebrities, unauthorized copies of copyrighted songs and movies, encouragement of racist violence and terrorism, and almost any imaginable type of objectionable content. Children researching homework assignments online may stumble upon Holocaust-denial and pro-genocide Web sites, unaware that what they are reading is not fact but paranoid delusion; criminals can find co-conspirators and all the information needed to plan their crimes.

At times the presence of this harmful content leads to demands for censorship, although harmful content is only a tiny portion of total online content—and many would disagree on whether particular content is harmful. Censorship carries a negative connotation; in the United States the power of the federal government to censor is severely restricted by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while the Fourteenth Amendment extends these restrictions to the state as well.

Even in pre-Internet times censorship was difficult. First, it was unpopular: the First Amendment is close to the core of the values lumped together under the heading "civil liberties"; censorship, in other words, is perceived as un-American. Second, the magnitude of the task was daunting even when information was published on paper. The Internet has done nothing to diminish the first problem, while expanding the second—the volume of information—by several orders of magnitude. In addition, the Internet provides new censorship challenges: encryption technology makes it easy to conceal content from government snoops; the lack of face-to-face contact provides children with access to the same information as adults; and the borderless nature of the Internet makes it easy for providers of content censored in one country to move that content to a server in another, more permissive country—while remaining accessible to web users in the first, censoring country.

This international character also makes it difficult for the government to control another type of information: content that infringes on the intellectual property of others. While the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides measures to remove infringing content or shut down sites that promote illegal downloads, it applies only in the United States. US authorities and copyright holders can do little about Web sites that are based in foreign countries. In 2011, two bills were introduced in Congress to address this problem. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP Act or PIPA) in the Senate attempt to stop copyright infringement via foreign Web sites by cutting off funds and access from the United States. While applauded by many rightsholders, such as film and music industry associations, the bills have been denounced by civil liberties groups and Internet technology companies as an avenue of government censorship that threatens the Internet itself. The controversy grabbed national headlines in January 2012 as many popular Web sites staged a protest on January 18, with such sites as Wikipedia, Reddit, and BoingBoing going completely dark while others including Craigslist and Google featured prominent messages against the bills urging the public to contact Congress.

(Partial excerpt) Cornwell, Nancy C. "Censorship: Overview." Issues: Understanding Controversy and SocietyABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 18 Jan. 2012.

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