Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Spreading online freedom

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 6 2002
(Issue 2036, The American Spirit)

Most of us have encountered moments of late when we yearned for the old decency standards of television and films. It might have been a Bruce Willis flick, or the latest brain-dead sit-com on Fox, but in the middle of whatever bit of cultural slime was scrolling across the screen the thought crossed our mind that the long-dead practice of having censors review new movies and sitcoms before they're released on the rest of us wasn't such a bad idea.

Yet while the deplorable state of Hollywood's fixation on sex and violence is fair game for debate, having the government decide what we can see is clearly something most of us want no return to – and realize once the movie or show in question is (thankfully) over.

For most of the people in the world, though, that concept – of nervous bureaucrats deciding what everyone else can see, read and hear – remains daily reality.

And that includes on the Internet.

The reason so many nations are trying to pry final authority over the 'Net away from the U.S. federal government isn't just because they dislike the United States – it's because our notions of free speech run up against their own practices.

Free speech at odds with world

While here in the United States we can have raging arguments over the propriety of something as mild as filtering software installed on Internet terminals in public libraries, in much of the rest of the world every computer's Internet access is filtered by the government – and not just for porn, either.

In fact, the fastest-growing career field in China is 'Net censor – you can make good money in Beijing sitting in front of a computer all day looking for Web sites critical of the government.

And placing them on the banned list, of course. (Leading to the ultimate irony that any site claiming the Chinese government censors the Internet is likely to be banned for defaming the government. Hot on the Web's Chinese readership is thus likely to remain quite small.)

Elsewhere, a French court is still trying to force Yahoo to remove Nazi memorabilia from its Web site. French laws prohibit the owning of Nazi artifacts – and the fact that French citizens can browse to Yahoo was enough to convince the court that despite the fact that Yahoo is located in the United States, it is violating French laws. (Yahoo is refusing to comply, and so far U.S. courts have backed Yahoo.)

Even in Canada, a country with comparatively strong recognition of and protection for free speech, Dr. Laura Schlesinger's talk show is banned as "hate speech" against gays – theoretically even on a streaming audio Web site. And nearly all pornography is illegal in Canada ("hate speech" against women, you see), so not only is your local library not going to let you view naked cheerleaders online, but your ISP may have to block them on your home PC as well.

Beautifully insidious

But those who've tasted freedom are unlikely to accept less – and there are several efforts under way to allow those living in countries with Internet censorship to still trade information freely.

Calling themselves Hactivismo (, one group of hackers has released a program called "Camera/Shy" that embeds secret messages in graphics files. Hactivismo is also working on a peer-to-peer networking system that would allow those living in China, Iran, and other nations with restricted Internet access to slip outside the official boundaries and gain access to the rest of the Internet as well.

Other similar efforts to create secret gateways to the full 'Net from censored counties include Peekabooty and Privaterra.

The end result of these efforts is that national governments that have tried to control what their citizens can read online are going to find themselves unable to keep pace. Chinese citizens will be able to find out what the rest of the world thinks about their nation, Iranians can start engaging with the rest of the world again, and Canadians can decide for themselves whether Dr. Laura is really a danger to society.

As for the Chinese 'Net censors? They'll still have their exclusive condos and full job security.

After all, there are already several billion photos online – that's a lot of potential secret messages to look for.