How Internet Censorship Works video transcript

Have you ever come across this kind of error while surfing on the Internet? It may be that the web page you're trying to access has been censored.

Contrary to popular belief, the Internet is not as free and open as one might think. All of our activity on the Internet passes through the hands of private corporations and they decide what you can say or see on the Internet.

In China, for example, the government actively instructs Internet service providers and their content hosts to police their services. They even go as far as handing out Internet self-discipline awards to companies that contribute the most to a harmonious and healthy Internet development.

And this is a ceremony I attended in 2009, where the top 20 websites in China received what's called the self-discipline Award and Robin Lee, the CEO of Baidu was one of those recipients. And so this is one of the features of Chinese Internet censorship, and surveillance that is actually carried out primarily by private sector companies and that the companies that run China's Internet services and platforms are acting as an extension of state power.

It may not surprise you that this kind of censorship takes place in authoritarian regimes, but similar kinds of censorship can also occur in Western democracies. For many, it began with China. That was the most public example. That was the place where their companies had been named and shamed and otherwise publicly taken to task, but very quickly folks realised that it wasn't just China, that it was countries around the world and in fact, as we've seen in the Open Net initiative research, it's dozens of countries where state sponsored Internet censorship is happening. And it's not just authoritarian regimes, but it's in fact democratic western regimes.

Internet service providers around the world receive many requests from Western governments to block or remove content. In 2010, Google started releasing data about the requests they receive and how often they comply. One of the great challenges that we all face in this space is a total lack of transparency as to what governments are requesting of companies, how companies are responding And much to its credit, Google has released information about the government requests it receives for takedowns and made that public on a country by country basis. Not quite in real time, but in fairly real time. And that's a really remarkable step in giving us all a window into the challenges that particular companies are faced to address with the requests they get from governments.

We're talking about corporations that service intermediaries, platforms for information flow between people and among people, and they may find themselves in a position where they're pressured or asked or demanded that they not permit certain information flows to take place. The idea would be, look, we're just a company if a government asks us to do something and we're on their turf. We usually have no choice but to go ahead and censor.

ISP's often remove or block content when governments ask, but they also do it without prompting or coercion. There are many examples of how private companies control the flow of information on their platforms, be it for legal, ethical, economic or other reasons. Shortly after the so-called Slutwalks against male chauvinism in Brazil, it was reported that Facebook had removed pictures of the protest, including bare chested women. These images have since been deleted by Facebook for ‘violating the declaration of rights and responsibilities’ as outlined by the online service. Flickr as well was caught removing content. In early 2011 Hossam el-Hamalawy discovered that Flickr deleted his uploaded photos of police officers from Egypt's state security force. He later learned that this happened because the pictures were taken by someone else – a violation of the sites community rules. Apple is also known for the severe, control they exercise over their App Store. At its launch in 2008, Steve Jobs announced that the platform isn't open to every app for a variety of reasons.

Will there be limitations? Of course. There are going to be some apps that we're not going to distribute. The ambiguous unforeseen in particular gives Apple a free hand to filter as they see fit.

Somebody came up with a baby shaking game on the iPhone and offered it up in the store and then a bunch of people said shaken baby syndrome is a serious problem. Apple do the right thing. Get rid of it and Apple got rid of it. And I think that can be pretty dangerous because now you've got highly risk averse companies like on the margin. What do they need this kind of pressure for and they'll get rid of not just shaken baby but as happened with Apple, they got rid of an app that was simply a countdown to the end of George W Bush's presidential term. It’s just a timer called Freedom time to counting down to the end of an era. And they didn't allow the app because they don't want to get in the crossfire, and that's dangerous for a healthy society.

In short, people often look at the Internet as a free and open public space. The reality, however, is that the vast majority of online space is privately owned. Online people are limited to what internet service providers and content hosts allow them to do and see. Sometimes they restrict content because of government pressure but sometimes they do it on their own initiative. We need to be aware that censorship is not just something that happens in authoritarian regimes but actually occurs all over the world. So be aware, you can’t always stop these practices, but if you can't reach the content you're looking for, you can report it to to help make censorship more transparent. For more information about these kinds of censorship, visit the Berkman website.

How Internet Censorship Works video

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