Routing Around Censorship

The famous quote by John Gilmore, “The Internet perceives censorship as damage and routes around it,” and whether or not it still applies was the focus of one of the breakout sessions this afternoon at CFP.  The speakers included Ian Brown from the Oxford Internet Institute, who discussed different deep-packet filtering tools used in the UK; TJ McIntyre from Digital Rights Ireland, who looked at the Internet Watch Foundation, the British organization that determines what pages are blocked by some of these tools, and their accountability; Catherine Crump from the ACLU, who discussed recent cases to challenge web filtering in libraries and schools in the US; Derek Bambauer from the Brooklyn Law School, discussing the recent fervor in Australia about a legally mandated national web filtering scheme; and Nicole Wong from Google who discussed censorship faced by Google services in various countries.

The key question- can the internet still route around censorship- was not settled at the panel (but then, a topic that large cannot expect to be settled in an hour and 15 minutes.)  Instead, the focus was on the chilling effects of new legal filtering requirements in what are generally considered “free” countries.  China, Iran, and other repressive countries have attempted to filter the Internet practically since the day they connected their first pipe, and there has been comparatively ineffective attempts to limit particular types of content through mandated filtering in the US and other nations that generally have more respect for free speech (see the Child Online Protection Act). But most individuals sufficiently technically suave can easily get around whatever filters are put in place.  Ian Brown’s examination of the different technologies being used to filter in Britain brought up the specter of censorship technology that will be more difficult to “route around” in the future, but it remains unclear how much more difficult that will be.

However, it seems like the technology of filtering is less significant than the legal, cultural, and psychological effects of mandated filtering.  As Derek Bambauer pointed out, while most of the people who attend conferences called “Computers, Freedom and Privacy” can get around filters, the average user would not be able to.  One of the audience members who worked with internet users in China pointed out that unless one has a compelling reason to seek out particular information, one isn’t likely to just stumble across filtered websites.  A case can be made that this is a good thing in the event that filtered information is child porn– that is exactly the case that the UK and Australia are making when promoting filtering.  However, as Nichole Wong pointed out, once countries like Australia start filtering the internet, it takes away the question of if filtering and censorship are acceptable in general, and allows countries like China to claim that it is merely a value judgment as to what is “dangerous” information.

-Eliza Bonner, guest blogger

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