Caught in the Web? Free speech and the Internet

by Melissa Shaw

by Melissa Shaw

In response to the recent riots that occurred in parts of the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has considered blocking access to social media during violent events. Police have already made arrests, on charges of suspicion of inciting violence based on tweets and photos posted on social media websites. Cameron has also asked police if they require new powers such as shutting down social network and communication services if they believe they are being used to spread unrest.

Internet censorship by governments is not a new issue. On January 25, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's government shut down nearly all Internet access in the country because protestors were using social media to organize themselves and were calling for his resignation. Access to Twitter was also blocked during the four weeks of protest in Tunisia that led to the overthrow of the government in that country.

In the San Francisco Bay area where a protest was planned in the subway system (in response to the police shooting of a homeless man), authorities blocked cellphone services at four stations to prevent protestors from organizing. Bay Area Rapid Transit spokesperson Linton Johnson declared: "Outside the fare gates, that's the public forum area. Inside the fare gates is a non-public forum and by law, by the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no right to free speech there." In protest against the censorship the hacker activist group Anonymous targeted the transit system's website and published over 2000 records of user information including phone numbers and postal addresses.

The response of companies when faced with government pressure to monitor users' activities and cooperate with police investigations has been varied. On August 8th Research in Motion announced that it will be cooperating with the investigation by the Metropolitan Police in the U.K after protestors used the BlackBerry instant messaging service to organize riots in Tottenham, Brixton, and Fairfield.

Deputy assistant commissioner for the police Steve Kavanagh said Twitter users could also face legal consequences if they were found to be posting “inflammatory” comments with the intention of inciting violence. Twitter did not issue any comment in response, but  Twitter's co-founder Biz Stone posted a statement on the company's website during the height of the protests in Egypt that expressed a commitment to freedom of expression. The post entitled “The Tweets Must Flow” states, “we don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”  It goes on to say, “ the open exchange of information can have a positive global impact.”  Twitter management do say that they remove illegal tweets and spam but they stress that on a practical level they cannot monitor the content of a hundred million plus tweets that are posted on the site every day.

Facebook's Andrew Noyes emailed the technology blog of the Los Angeles Times with a similar statement.  “Limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community. It is essential to communication and commerce. No one should be denied access to the Internet.”

It is not just social media websites that face government censorship. Internet filtering software made by companies in the U.S and Canada is being sold abroad where it is used by governments to censor a wide variety of websites.

According to the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab, which monitors human rights in the digital era, Netsweeper is one Canadian example of this practice. Netsweeper operates out of Guelph, Ont., and provides Internet-filtering software to state-owned telecommunication companies in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Citizen Lab reports that websites containing political, religious and same-sex content are blocked in these countries using Netsweeper. Netsweeper supplies filtering software to the state-owned telecom in Yemen where a civil uprising earlier this year led to the killing of pro-democracy protestors. Chief Executive Officer for Netsweeper Perry Roach says the company is really in a “no comment” mode in regards to allegations that its software is being used to repress free speech abroad.

Unlike Canada, the U.S has legislation before Congress that would cause web filtering software companies to be more transparent and place controls on the export of their products to countries that place restrictions on access to online content. Canada has export controls in place for weapons, military technology and other goods but there are no controls for the export of web filtering software.

According to Industry Canada the majority of Netsweeper's $5 to $10 million in sales comes from exports and their distribution network includes North America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South America. The Open Net initiative, which works in partnership with Citizen Lab, reports that other companies are involved in exporting Internet filtering technology, including McAfee, Blue Coat Systems, and Palo Alto Networks.

Without legislation in place social media and Internet filtering software companies are free to define their own position on the issue of freedom of expression. The California-based Websense has an anti-censorship policy stating it will not use its services in ways that, “could be viewed as oppressive of rights.” Its aim is to use its filtering software to help governments block pornography access to minors and child porn. In August 2009, OpenNet discovered that ISPs in Yemen were using Websense software to block access to political and religious websites. Websense responded by investigating the case and ultimately removing the database download capacity. Netsweeper quickly replaced Websense in providing web filtering services in Yemen.

Internet regulation will continue to be an important issue as an increasing number of people around the globe conduct business and engage in social activities online. There is a growing need for security and the Internet filtering software industry is expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2013. There is a growing awareness of the tension between freedom and regulation of the Internet.