Internet censorship may still be in the early stages in North America, but in much of the rest of the world the situation is vastly different.
In many countries internet censorship is a fact of life. Much of it, of course, targets dissent, rebellion and information potentially harmful to ruling regimes. Much of it also targets porn.
According to Nart Villeneuve, a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab — which has done work with Chinese bloggers and dissidents on how to avoid internet censorship — porn is an easy target because many countries simply use the same filtering software so widely available commercially. It’s the same filters used here by companies, governments and parents to control access to objectionable sites.
Villeneuve does track the censoring of porn around the world, but says it’s usually an incidental target of government control, not a primary target.
“Porn is definitely targeted but the numbers are skewed by the fact that the use of commercial lists allow countries to block a lot of porn easily,” he writes on his website. “But in terms of significance porn is, in my opinion, of rather low importance. The blocking of several key sources of local language alternative information or a social movement group is much more important.”
The Open Net Initiative (ONI) — a collaboration between the Citizen Lab and programs at Harvard Law School and the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford — has been measuring internet censorship around the world for several years.
ONI measures censorship in several categories, including political, which focuses “primarily on websites that express views in opposition to those of the current government. Content more broadly related to human rights, freedom of expression, minority rights and religious movements is also considered here.” Another category is social, which “covers material related to sexuality, gambling and illegal drugs and alcohol, as well as other topics that may be socially sensitive or perceived as offensive.”
ONI tested censorship by having surfers in subject countries see if they could access a variety of sites. The results show a variety of approaches and obsessions on the part of various governments.
Tests from 2006, for example, show that Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with porn. “‘Immoral’ social content continues to be a priority target for Saudi censors,” says the ONI country profile. “Over 90 percent of pornographic websites and most sites featuring provocative attire or gambling that were tested were blocked. Numerous sites relating to alcohol and drugs, gays and lesbians, and sex-education and family planning were also inaccessible. This pervasive filtering of social content is achieved through the use of SmartFilter software.”
Saudi Arabia also required all internet service providers (ISPs) to be licensed by the government. The ISPs connect to a government-run national network, which then connects to international networks, giving the government virtually complete control.
Uzbekistan, according to the ONI, “maintains the most extensive and pervasive filtering system” among former Soviet Union states. Filtering is technically prohibited under Uzbek law, but laws such as the Mass Media Law regulate media content and the Law on Principles and Guarantees on Access to Information allows the government to restrict access to protect individuals “from negative informational psychological influence.” Security forces also monitor internet cafes. Most ISPs self-censor, says ONI.
“Selective filtering of websites displaying social topics was also detected, including sites with religious, extremist, porn, gay and lesbian content,” says the ONI study.
As might be expected Iran, which has been accused of executing gays, cracks down hard on queer websites. According to ONI research they’re able to do this by using readily available commercial filtering software.
“ONI testing confirmed that Iran employs the greatest degree of filtering of all the countries tested, in both scope and depth of content,” says the report. “Heavily filtered types of content include pornography, provocative attire and circumvention tools, which is characteristic of states that use commercial software such as SmartFilter. ONI testing also found significant blocking of content related to homosexuality, particularly if it had any connection to Iran.”
Sites blocked in Iran include those of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
African countries were also found to engage heavily in internet censorship, and again there is a strong emphasis on removing access to queer sites. Sudan, for example, also uses the commercial software SmartFilter.
“Pornography was extensively filtered,” says the ONI report. “There was also some blocking of gay and lesbian, dating and provocative-attire websites. Those dating websites that were blocked were those likely to host sexually explicit or gay and lesbian content. Other blocked gay and lesbian websites included a site addressing domestic violence and a search portal, which were filtered due to being miscategorized as pornography by the commercial software SmartFilter.”
Singapore, whose government has a reputation for being extremely repressive morally, was found to actually censor very little — only seven of the tested websites, including Playboy.com and Penthouse.com. However the laws are so strict that self-censorship is rife in Singapore.
Israel, where the only thing rightwingers of the three major religions appear to agree upon is their hatred of homosexuality, has no censorship at all, of pornography – gay or otherwise – or anything else.
However according to the Jerusalem Post a bill currently before the Israeli parliament would require surfers to provide proof that they’re 18 before being allowed to access pornographic sites. The bill does not specify what grounds would be used to classify porn sites.
It’s no surprise that repressive regimes censor the internet, nor that homosexual sites would be targeted. What is particularly disturbing, however, is that one of the ways these regimes censor is by using the same filtering software increasingly common here.
The next time your access to a website is denied by an interfering busybody in Canada, remember the same methods are being used to censor and imprison those living under brutal dictatorships.