Internet and Democracy: The Sequel

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April 10

A decade ago, the Internet was widely seen as a means to diminish the power of countries to regulate the flow of ideas and information. However, we have witnessed the resurgence of national sovereignty in cyberspace, with many countries now resorting to a combination of technology, law and intimidation to reign in the spread of free speech via the Net. Often aided by the technological support of the private sector in the United States, for this class, we will debate the ethics, practicality and implications of Internet censorship.

Slides (PDF)


Additional Resources

Class Discussion

April 10: Internet and Democracy: The Sequel

The DMCA does seem like a great way for websites to remain in business, while also allowing for a reasonable amount of growth to sustain in the information technology universe. For example, many websites would not even grow to the scale in which they now exist without some kind of protection to continue to operate. If YouTube was being sued left and right before it ever became popular, then the site would have been shut down and the world would never have been able to have witnessed … YouTube. In this regard the DMCA is great. However, it is not perfect from protecting websites from legal action. It is more like a handshake, or a general rule that can be bent. Nevertheless, at least it is something. Looking at it from another aspect, it is quite easy to abuse the DMCA. For example, anyone who wishes to report some kind of copyright infringement may do so very easily, causing many problems. Look at So, there is massive potential for abuse, or things like blackmail/extortion to occur. Many of these DMCA conditions are quite uncertain. The knowledge aspect is stipulation, as is willful blindness. Leaving users to control their own material is one way to protect the website – however, and then there is the storage aspect. Even if users have control of their own material, because the content is being stored on the website could be arguable for a lawsuit. So, there really doesn’t seem to be any real way to protect a website from being sued. If anything, the DMCA does allow for some leeway in overseeing operation. This allows websites to function without being taken down in a crude way. Just Johnny 17:12, 15 February 2012 (UTC)

What is interesting is not so much the difference between democratic and non democratic treatment of the information coming from Internet but the way democratic countries tries to deal with democratic values and non democratic thought coming from Internet. The difference between France and US is interesting regarding the Yahoo case about nazi websites. I have always though that to preserve democratie and republic, non democratic ou republicann ideas should be forbiden. Exactly like in non democratic countries where ideas that defend democatry are forbidden. Internet does not changer this order.

--Sab 20:31, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@Sab: Interesting that you mention the differences between democratic and non-democratic nations, as you put it. Mind you, democracy is a fleeting concept. Even in so called democratic nations, the use of the internet is being regulated in ways that could be construed as borderline non-democratic ideology. Regulations, as we see in the Evolving Landscape of Internet Control[1] are shifting in ways that are separating traditional democratic values with near totalitarian substitution. For example, this notion of “local” and the enforcement and surveillance of the local is a challenging concept. Still, it comes down to the fact that you want me to pay you for what? Sure, civil unrest must be prevented in order to maintain the democratic process. However, many corporations are pushing to change social norms and laws. Unblemished and happy people should not be ignored, or automatically thrown under the bus on the journey of continual progress amid the information superhighway. Just Johnny 05:53, 16 April 2012 (UTC)

I was surprised by the numbers from the "Evolving Landscape..." reading as far as how normal people use the internet in restrictive countries. We tend to think of the internet as this powerful tool to access multicultural views and information, especially if you live in a censorious society. This neglects the fact that around 80% of the websites I use/read/visit commonly are based out of the U.S., and 99% are English-language, so why would that be substantially different for someone from China? Part of our assumption that this resource is so valuable is that people would want to read the same info we are, because it is presumably the best (and to be fair it at least quite often is, as far as the areas it actually covers). But that often is not the info most relevant to those readers.

The shockingly low % (1% at a guess by the reading) of people in China, for example, who are using circumvention tools makes a lot more sense when you realize that internal Chinese sites like youku fill the vast majority of their internet needs, and that specifically Chinese concepts and constructs like microblogging avoid censors through a much more realistic approach to political censorship for the average internet user there. This is troubling in light of the conclusion that censoring technologies may now be outstripping circumvention technologies/abilities of average internet users to avoid censorship/attack/tracking. The solution of aggressively empowering a small group of activists, who would then spread messages through the local networks, seems to me to be a good one. It does place those activists at even more risk by further singling them out though, and obviously detracts from the crowd-sourcing type benefits that are at the heart of the internet's value.

I'm looking forward to discussing in class the balance of an international company's responsibility to its shareholders to create profit and remain competitive v. its responsibility to its original nation's norms/laws/etc. v. its responsibility to to an international "human rights" type code for the internet, regardless of where it comes from or where it's serving.

There are always arguments to be made for profit above all else, and what if trying too hard to be moral lowers your profits to where an 100% immoral (in relation to these internet issues) company corners the market? Then your idealism ruined you AND actively hurt online rights, since you left the door open for someone far worse than yourself to control that chunk of the web. AlexLE 17:03, 9 April 2012 (UTC)

@AlexLE: You know, it never seems to amaze me how ignorant people can be of other cultures. There is a lot going on out there in the world. What becomes difficult about globalization is agreeing on and then enforcing a one world government. Should the FBI be able to take down any .com domain? While the United States does have a lot of influence and control over the Internet, there is a bit of a power struggle going on between other countries and regions. Russia, China, and Europe, for example. China's circumvention tools are particular to the government and laws in China. Although, I do not think many American's would be in agreement with China enforcing a take down of, say, Facebook from within the United States. But, that is exactly what the FBI is doing with websites that are based out of the country using .com domains. Take, for instance, which is a Canadian poker website. See: The FBI took down – so, the company was forced to move to a .ca domain. So, perhaps this trend will continue as websites are forced to become more local to their region. That way local governments can enforce laws as applicable to that particular website and domain. Then all we've got to really worry about is corruption of governments. Just Johnny 14:33, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

In the reading The Evolving Landscape of Internet Control I agree with AlexLE that the numbers are astonishing. Besides the statistics that AlexLE already mentioned, I found it very interesting the case that China’s most effective form of Internet control has been not only shutting out foreign sites but mainly within China. The three reasons exposed there (aggressive blockage, high quality of Chinese websites and linguistic reasons, and pride and desire to use local products) make sense to me, and I really like the comparison between China and Russia about their ASNs and IP addresses, because it shows the level of control that each country has. Although compared to Russia it seems that China has a vast major control over the Internet, Russia has other types of exerting control, including the offline one, which is the particular Russia’s type of control.

I also felt dismayed with the more or less conclusion that the Governments are winning the battle in exerting control over the usage of the Internet. Nonetheless, I like the recommendations that the Berkman Center’s offers to promote open Internet and freedom of speech. I think one of these recommendations mirrors the success of the Kony2012 campaign, because when it says “focus on circumvention tools for activists” it means to me that if we want to win the battle we need to seek hubs, like in the Kony2012 campaign.Fabiancelisj 20:03, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@Fabiancelisj: It is quite understandable that China is accustomed to Chinese websites. There is the obvious reason of a language barrier for one thing. Although, personally I prefer Facebook over Chinese websites. To each their own, though. I do think that engaging China in free-trade with the rest of the world is one way in which China can begin to be more free and open. So it is a slow and eventual process. And it a good thing. So long as the lines of communication remain open, then social norms may be able to be shifted. And this is all part of the evolving cultural landscape of the Internet. As far as I know there is a way for Chinese to use Facebook, and other American websites. So, hopefully as more people use them then these societies can be opened up in productive ways that perhaps repressive governments could not. Just Johnny 21:00, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

@Fabiancelisj: This is a very interesting idea you present here: "The three reasons exposed there (aggressive blockage, high quality of Chinese websites and linguistic reasons, and pride and desire to use local products) make sense to me, and I really like the comparison between China and Russia about their ASNs and IP addresses, because it shows the level of control that each country has. Although compared to Russia it seems that China has a vast major control over the Internet, Russia has other types of exerting control, including the offline one, which is the particular Russia’s type of control." I remember the (previous) in-class discussion and the breadth of the class spreading quite vast in terms of perception and desires of privacy. What you state here, in effect, touches on the same individual sense of privacy on a macro-socio/political plane. In particular, it is interesting to note that Chinese pride of using home-grown products (often perceived as "fakes") by foreigners. Some things are complete knock-offs though! I am still learning about the balance of transparency and opacity. Harvard212 15:31, 8 May 2012 EST

It is interesting this week to learn about the different technologies and measures the government takes to control the internet and the circumvention tools people take to by-pass filtering and blockage. Internet control is manageable in certain countries such as China and Russia due to the effectiveness of DDoS attacks and personal attacks that leave people fear retribution for speaking up against the government, and due to the challenges of circumvention tools, such as lack of access and language barrier. I also find it interesting that Facebook’s approach to online policing is through user reporting of spam and blocking. I agree that it is difficult to bring Facebook’s content elsewhere since it is so comprehensive and generative, because its platform contains sharing images and videos, groups, and social-networking. In a way, it is a combination of Flikr, YouTube, and Twitter, which I personally so addictive.Qdang 18:22, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@Qdang: What is really interesting about Facebook, and other American websites is that they are part of a cultural language. They are, in a sense, born to be free and wild. They resonate as part of this cultural landscape. So, the problem that many of these repressive governments have with them is that they are communicating this language. Which, in turn affects culture directly. So there is no doubt that repressive governments would want to stop users from gaining access to these websites from within these countries. Social norms, in particular, are already beginning to shift in many regions as a result of social media. However, as with laws, this is an organic process. Just Johnny 21:07, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

The first article for this week’s class was concise yet powerful and true. The internet has definitely become a very important battlefield and it can become a powerful weapon if used in certain ways. We can simply think of the number of people who read newspapers these days compared to blogs, forums and other online discussion boards where information can be, and it is very often, distorted. Other than this, the article was very useful for understanding political implications concerning the use of the internet, especially the ones that take place in Countries where freedom of speech is often denied by dictatorial governments. The Zittrain/Palfrey article was very interesting especially when depicting a hypothetical yet realistic situation at the beginning. For us westerners it is very hard to imagine what it would be like to be censored for futile reasons, or be controlled by governments and even be at risk of incarceration for writing something so harmless but fundamental like “democracy” in China. The third article was also very interesting and I personally could identify myself only with Facebook because I don’t use any other social network. What has been said is true but I believe that it can be very easy to avoid detection on Facebook if something against the rules were to take place. As the article has already said, anonymity is a very common practice on Facebook and I personally think that the Facebook staff doesn’t really spend that much time searching for irregularities, especially since they have created the “flag” option where users become a sort of citizen watch to report violations themselves. The ONI blog revealed some very attention-grabbing news about the internet but my attention was directed to the headline regarding CISPA and how people think it will become a new SOPA or PIPA. I have personally read the entire bill and I don’t think it can be considered similar at all. There have been a number of emails sent around the internet asking to sign a petition against CISPA for a series of reasons which turn out to be completely untrue, therefore one can really understand how emails, blogs and other internet tools can provide misinformation and make people believe something that isn’t true. I agree on the creation of the Safe Harbor Provision but I still think that ISPs or OSPs should also be vigilant 24/7 on what material is posted on their sites and take adequate countermeasures to stop illegal activity without waiting to actually be caught by the government or law enforcement agencies. The hall of shame was perhaps the most interesting website this week because it shows something which I am writing about in my research paper for this class and that is: Shaming ISPs in an attempt to stop illegal activities. The Viacom v. YouTube case was and still is very interesting. At first the court ruled in favor of YouTube but during the appeal it seems that both Viacom and YouTube can consider themselves victorious even though both losing something. It will be very interesting to see what happens next to this important case. Emanuele 10:47, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@Emanuele: As is clearly stated in the Viacom v. YouTube article:

In the adolescence of the Internet, we are seeing complex business models that may combine Grokster-like purpose with other, ostensibly benign functionalities. Services seeking to capitalize on the draw of infringing goods may exhibit superficial respect for copyright concerns—by implementing a takedown program, for instance—yet rest secure in the knowledge that their users will continue to supply the content on which they depend in limitless quantities.Courts must resist the invitation to oversimplify reality by arbitrarily dividing the Internet world into “true pirates” and everyone else. Not every pirate is holed up in a garage, has a name ending in “-ster” or spells “wares” with a “z.” Some dress in expensive clothing and have MBAs. Courts need to sort through the facts without prejudging them, and beware pirates in disguise. '

So, I think that anonymity is somewhat possible on the Internet – even though IP addresses may be traceable, whoever is logging on can not always be verified. However, when it comes to the content itself, there is always an option for discussion. Just Johnny 21:16, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

I found an interesting article on the ONI Blog titled "Iran Plans to Implement 'Clean Internet' by August 2012." That article summarizes, essentially, how the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in Iran plans to soon "install an Intranet that will block Gmail, Facebook, and many other websites in attempts to create a 'clean Internet'." Some have named this an "electronic curtain." In lieu of the aforementioned popular western Internet tools, the government will instead replace them with Iran Mail and Iran Search Engine. I just found it fascinating that such a large scale crackdown on western internet tools would be carried out and implemented so quickly. It appears as if they are targeting a 5 month timeframe for completion. Cfleming27 10:52, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@Cfleming27: This is no ordinary argument. We're talking a b o u t a c o m m u n I c a t I o n b r e a k d o w n ... I wouldn't pull your leg. Just Johnny 21:27, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

The readings raise frightful questions about internet censorship that almost certainly will never be resolved if we expect corporations to “regulate” themselves and establish a code of ethics as Ziittrain and Palfrey explore. The whole core belief of the free market is that all corporations enjoy benefits and focus solely on profits, meaning that profits generated through ethical sacrifices will be a leading problem unless, as was suggested, the United Nations becomes involved or countries conform.

From the ONI website, the Iranian censorship campaign is quite disturbing. Yet many countries of the world have strong business ties with this regime and therefore outside pressures to encourage free speech are essentially a moot point.

The Arizona law mentioned on the ONI website is particularly troubling because of its ambiguous language. The controversial heart of the bill reads as follows (

"It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person. It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous electronic or digital communications the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the communications were received."

While threats and intimidation may fall into the category of bullying, such broad language raises concerns on how law enforcement can, in fact, outwardly censor the internet at their own discretion. I don’t think you have to be a civil libertarian to find the ambiguity of this bill to be troubling.--Jimmyh 16:34, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@Jimmyh: You know, I respect freedom of expression. Zittrain really nails this aspect of corporate responsibility, as this is becoming more of a central component with respect to the Internet. Of course, when it comes to the Internet, we are beginning to see that corporations – and not really governments – are controlling consumers in a much broader and farther reaching scope than before. So it is corporations that can transmit messages to consumers, by way of the media as well as through other means, sidestepping governments, to intimidate or control citizens to adhere to a social order. So ethics plays a very large component in this, because the combination of a multitude of messages could constitute a violation of the law, as outlined in the quote above. For example: “It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person.” Now, if I am bombarded by a company through television, Internet adverts, email, phone calls, radio, and so on and so forth to do something, it could be grounds for harassment and damage claims. Just Johnny 23:16, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

Fascinating stuff in all of the articles and blog site. Very interesting how China uses 4 chokepoints to filter 240m IP addresses versus Russia's use of 19 for 30 million. Makes sense to see the more authoritarian country the less that seems to be required. In Russia which is seen as democratic there appears to be more effort required to censor/filter the public (youth groups, hacking). Regarding workaround tools, I would simply be afraid to even USE one in a country like China out of fear of being detected and violating law. With Iran looking to completely cut itself from the world come August, will be interesting to see what the reaction is from the public. Regarding companies doing international business, I see the other half of the coin (even though disturbing). I can understand how a company like Google censors information for the people of China because it's services are just an extension of offline information that was regulated in the same way. The troublesome part is handing over data which leads to arrests and other "human rights violations" as we Americans see it (per the article). I think there needs to be responsibility by the party using the service and knowing when trying to circumvent the service or use it for locally known laws that there can be some persecution. Ethics go both ways when following the law. I'd like to know how countries like Egypt/Syria/Iran compare to China in terms of authoritarianism/"human rights" violations against it's people. Looking forward to discussion and any input on this board. Brendanlong 18:03, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@Brendanlong: I really think it comes down to pull. Many of these countries, such as Egypt/Syria/Iran simply do not have the resources to compete with superpowers such as the United States, or emerging superpowers such as China, or Russia. So, essentially, I think what it comes down to is whether or not these nations have the pull to compete. What I think is interesting is how take downs are really going to work as laws adapt across the globe. There is a lot of tug and pull from China, or Russia, for example. So even if we have people in Egypt using Twitter, we are still going to have to deal with the authorities clamping down on people for posting a Tweet. Just Johnny 23:26, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

Great readings this week especially the latest with the Viacom/YT ruling. Thought this was pretty relevant for this week's discussion. Also received a petition notice about it in my inbox: [Dodd Wants To Resurrect SOPA]JennLopez 22:28, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@JennLopez: Interesting article. I think that governments and corporations ideally try to cooperate. Although, I still am not sure whether or not petitions actually make a difference – or, if they are like voting? Anyways, always good to keep people engaged in the idea of the process – like starting a piggy bank for kids. Just Johnny 23:31, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

Until this week's readings, I didn't realize how much the "playing field" had changed in the area of online censorship and circumvention. When I visited China for a month in late 2010, I primarily stayed in Yunnan province (generally in the NW). One of the hostels I stayed at was run by a westerner who "tunneled" in super fast internet from Hong Kong (that's what he told us, anyways). I could easily and quickly access various social media sites and the web content appeared unfiltered. Most other internet connections I used while in China were SO slow, I guess because of all the filtering/censoring. Typically, I couldn't access Facebook or Blogger unless I used one of these "tunneled" connections, although I could use the Facebook app on my iPhone! While in Cairo a couple weeks prior to the protests in Tahrir square, I had no trouble accessing Blogger or Facebook. This has probably changed in light of Arab Spring, though. I imagine that a comparison of authoritarian countries would produce varied differences in cyber control, presumably having to do with how some of these countries' cyber censorship fluctuates depending on events at home. I'm sure China will implement even more austere measures this fall in anticipation of protests during the CCP's once in a decade regime change.

I am also alarmed at how willingly (according to the OpenNet article) companies like Google and Skype give information to repressive authorities. I wonder what could be done about this. It's a very complicated situation and I don't know enough about it to make a legitimate judgment. Aberg 19:48, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

@Aberg: Interesting point about the tunneling. I'm sure there's a way for freedom to ring, even in China. So it's good to know that users have that option. I'm sure much of the media is streamlined everywhere else in China, though. So it is a very complicated situation when companies such as Google are providing information to repressive governments. And somewhat dangerous. Just Johnny 23:36, 28 April 2012 (EDT)

@Aberg I was also in China not long ago and noticed the difference in Internet speed and what sites you were able to access depending on what location you were logging in from. After the readings for this week I will be more aware of what information I access or post during international travel. --Hds5 21:06, 10 April 2012 (UTC)

In response to Corporate Ethic on a Filtered Internet, I feel that this whole subject raises even deeper questions, which are only mirrored in the internet conflict. Some nation states are more peaceful than others. Some are more aggressive. Some feel they should intervene in other nations’ affairs. Some feel they shouldn’t. Governments don’t seem to always be looking out for the best interests of their people, but rather just seek to keep a certain group of people in power. Some corporations are coming to hold more real power and influence than traditional nation states and their governments. Through it all, many people are still oppressed, abused, neglected, or manipulated. What we see in a struggle for internet control reflects these broader struggles. Can overarching laws in the true interests of human beings, in general, be constructed and enforced? What international bodies, if any, could be appropriate to outline such laws and enforce them? It would seem we need more internationally agreed upon codes of conduct, in general, but it seems beyond human grasp. If there were an overarching international organism to regulate things like internet, might we just be making a new “Frankenstein” with yet more power, potentially useful for the wrong purposes? These are farther reaching questions, but ones that I see coming up, as we proceed down this road of internet ethics.Mike 05:45, 12 April 2012 (UTC)

@Mike: Yes, it's true. Everybody wants to rule the world. Just Johnny 23:38, 28 April 2012 (EDT)