Internet Filtering – Protection or Suppression?

Internet filtering, or content-control software, is designed to restrict or control the content users are allowed to access. This is primarily used to regulate material delivered over the Internet via the Web, e-mail, or other online means. Many places use filtering like this to restrict workers from checking their Facebook while on the clock, but there has been an increasing trend over the last few years to implement internet filtering to protect children from harmful material and decrease access to sexually explicit materials.

History and Reason Behind Internet Filtering

Internet filtering is a more gentle way of saying “censorship”. Internet censorship is the control or suppression of what can be accessed, published, or viewed on the Internet enacted by regulators, or on the initiative of a group. The type and extent of censorship varies from country to country and state to state depending on political, religious and legislative circumstances. Obviously there are completely different extents to which entities take censorship and their motives. Some countries use censorship to oppress alternative views  – like North Korea having total control over all computers connected to the internet. Technologically savvy users can often find ways to access blocked content (circumvention), like people attempting to access Facebook, Twitter and Bloomberg in China. Interesting enough, Facebook is creating a censorship tool to get back into China. Nevertheless, blocking remains an effective means of limiting access to sensitive information for most users. There are a few main ways to block internet access: Internet Protocol (IP) address blocking (denying access to a certain IP addresses), domain name system (DNS) filtering and redirection (domain name servers) and packet filtering (blocking controversial keywords). Some sites, like Google, will block sites that violate their ” terms or policies or if we are investigating suspected misconduct” — often this  means material with copyright issues. They can do this under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works. The most common blocked and removed content is content that is a copyright infringement, against politics and people in power in the country, social media, against moral values or poses security concerns.

The Issues

Much of this filtering is to block sites that can distract people while at work or are inappropriate to access while at work. As I mentioned earlier, it is part of a growing trend throughout the world to implement censorship in schools to protect children, but also to decrease censorship around the world to promote the freedom of information against authoritarian regimes. Here is a map of the countries with the highest internet censorship in 2016.

The Freedom on the Net 2016 report published by Freedom House brings some insight to the level of internet censorship in the world. Almost 67% internet population uses censored internet.

Recently, McDonalds and Starbucks pledged to implement filtering in order to block customers from streaming sexually explicit content on their wifi. A Starbuck’s spokesperson state, “Once we determine that our customers can access our free Wi-Fi in a way that also doesn’t involuntarily block unintended content, we will implement this in our stores. In the meantime, we reserve the right to stop any behavior that interferes with our customer experience, including what is accessed on our free Wi-Fi.” New Work City also faced issues with their Wi-Fi kiosks, designed to replace phone booths and allow users to consult maps, maybe check the weather or charge their phones, and users using them to access sexually explicit content.

The Bills

Here is a map of all internet filtering bills from across the nation.

Florida proposed H337 which would prohibit covered businesses from manufacturing, distributing, or selling certain devices unless device contains active and operating filter for access to certain types of content on the Internet. This content includes: sexually oriented material, prostitution, assignation, lewdness, human trafficking or material harmful to minors. Indiana proposed a bill that requires Internet content filtering as part of any wireless internet access made available to children.

Illinois proposed a bill that implements filtering technology on all library computers to block Internet materials that are harmful to minors, like obscene or sexually explicit matter. Michigan has a bill to allow libraries to disable the blocking or filtering software to enable access for “bona fide medical research” by medical personnel.

Mississippi’s bill would require individual school districts to do utilization and filtering reports which would include the most frequently visited websites, categories and search terms, the most frequently blocked websites and the top authenticated users. Rhode Island currently has 9 bills having to do with Internet filtering, most centered around filtering the Internet access within schools for the “health and safety of pupils”.

Utah proposed SB185 to allow lawsuits against companies that put pornography on the internet, aimed to aid underage children and teens who become addicted to pornography. State Sen. Todd Weiler stated, “To pretend that this is not having any impact on our youth, on children’s minds as they’re developing, as their attitudes towards sex and the opposite sex are being formed, I think is foolish.” They also proposed SB209 which provides for grants to school districts and charter schools for personal mobile learning devices but requires them to have internet filtering capabilities.

US bills primarily have to do with Internet filtering are concentrated around decreasing filtering and increasing use of and access to the internet around the world, especially in authoritarian countries.  Most of the bills have a segment with language similar to “made available for research of key threats to Internet freedom; the continued development of technologies that provide or enhance access to the Internet, including circumvention tools that bypass Internet blocking, filtering, and other censorship techniques used by authoritarian governments”. US HR83 and US HR754 promote Internet freedom and access to information in Iran. US HR889 states “single, open, global Internet is a vital tool for facilitating the free and secure flow of information and products without regard to distances or national boundaries”. US HR5834 is a bill to include reasonable costs for high-speed Internet service in the utility allowances for families residing in public housing and states service provider has to allow for clocking or filtering of Internet access to protect minors.

Bills like these are also being proposed around the world. The UK introduced internet legislation will preserve the rights of internet providers to block pornography websites as part of the Digital Economy Bill. The UN proposed that social networks proactively police every profile and post to combat cyberbullying and will need a government agency “license”.  In Thailand, a Computer-Related Crime Act is leading to tighter Internet control. South Africa found an Internet censorship bill to be unconstitutional. I’m not too sure how I feel about all of this. On one hand, I think that social media and sexually explicit material should be blocked at schools. It distracts from learning and can lead to really harmful actions including cyberbullying. On the other hand, I can see how implementing new laws that enable filtering could have the possibility to lead to a slippery slope of censorship in politics, beliefs and suppression of the right to information. What are your thoughts?

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sarahevelynnjohnson

Photography enthusiast, creative ambitions, always smile.

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