Chapter in Jack Balkin et al., The Global Flow of Information
In dozens of nations around the world, the state takes part in censoring what their citizens can see and do on the Internet. This practice is increasingly widespread, with extensive filtering regimes in place in China, Iran, Burma (Myanmar), and Uzbekistan, among many other countries. Censorship using technological filters is often coupled with harsh laws related to what the press can publish, opaque surveillance practices, and severe penalties for people who break the state’s rules of using the Internet.
At the same time as Internet censorship grows, heads of state and their representatives have been gathering every two years for a World Summit on the Information Society. The widespread practice of blocking citizens from accessing certain information on the Internet from within a given state offers a point of engagement for the Internet governance debate that takes place at this summit. The World Summit on Information Society’s planners, the members of the United Nations ICT Task Force, the members of the United Nations’ Working Group on Internet Governance and others at the center of the Internet governance debate should help to establish a set of principles and best practices related to Internet filtering.
The Internet filtering problem, on one level, is an unattractive candidate for the Internet governance decision-makers to take up. Diplomatic niceties make hard conversations about divisive issues unpleasant. A serious discussion of Internet filtering would dredge up thorny topics like free expression, privacy, national security, international enforcement, and state sovereignty – issues on which states are likely to disagree vehemently. But in so doing, the Internet governance debate might take on new life. It could focus discussion on the core problems related to the divergence of views among states as to what a “good” Internet looks like. It would put in relief the jurisdictional issues related to every country in the world sharing a single, unitary, public network of networks, far more powerful than any such network that has come before, with the power to bring people together and to divide them – while also acknowledging the fact that states can and do exert power over what their citizens do on this network. It would prompt an examination of whether any single set of rules might serve to address concerns related to content on the Internet. And, in the process, it would encourage states to come clean about the lengths they are willing to go to block their citizens from accessing information online. At best, such a discussion would bring the issue of state-based Internet censorship into the spotlight and might, in the process, lead some states to reform their Internet filtering practices so as to become more open and transparent.