Enemies of free speech online are everywhere
16 Mar 09

This article was originally published on Comment is Free

No surprises in the line up of enemies of free expression online in a new report from Reporters Without Borders: Burma, North Korea, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Egypt maintain as tight a control on dissent on the internet as they do off line. Australia also deservedly gets a mention (in the rather unfortunately titled sub section, ‘Countries under surveillance’) for its authoritarian efforts to filter all internet content.

Yet the global nature of the internet means that it perhaps makes less sense these days just to point the finger at isolated cases. It’s not just a question any more of naming and shaming repressive regimes – western businesses are implicated too. I don’t just mean Google and Yahoo for their activities in China, but the software and hardware companies that design the filtering software and infrastructure that makes censorship possible.

Saudi Arabia, for example, blocks undesirable websites with Californian software and the Chinese have Cisco to thank for their routers and switches. As the writer Xeni Jardin has observed, the US is now in the business of exporting censorship. For the first time in history, censorship has become a profitable enterprise, not just a matter of political control. Reporters Without Borders notes in its report that Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others signed up last year to the Global Network Initiative, a venture that seeks to build human rights into corporate practice. ‘How much they may in reality defy the demands of authorities in countries to which they provide services remains to be seen,’ it observes.

But we also have to keep a close eye on our own backyard. The internet has not only given new life to censorship, it’s also made it more respectable. When children’s lobbying groups call for government intervention online, as the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Security did last month, or when secretary of state for culture Andy Burnham says he wants to tighten up online control of content and adds that the government may have been too quick in accepting the notion that the internet was ‘beyond legal reach’, there is little public outcry about the impact this will have on freedom of expression.

Censorship is no longer solely the practice of authoritarian countries –– it has become a reasonable proposition. It would be worth bringing some of the scrutiny home.

By Jo Glanville

Jo Glanville is editor of Looking for an enemy: eight essays on antisemitism (Short Books) and Qissat: short stories by Palestinian women (Telegram/Saqi Books). She is a former editor of Index on Censorship.