December 30, 2010 | By Peter Eckersley

2010 Trend Watch Update: Global Internet Censorship

At the beginning of this year EFF identified a dozen important trends in law, technology and business that we thought would play a significant role in shaping digital rights in 2010, with a promise to revisit our predictions at the end of the year. Now, as 2010 comes to a close, we're going through each of our predictions one by one to see how accurate we were in our trend-spotting. Today, we're looking back on Trend #3, Global Internet Censorship, where we predicted the following:

For years, the obvious benefits of an uncensored Internet have kept advocates of Net blocking on the defensive. But new filtering initiatives in Australia and Europe combined with growing rhetoric around child protection, cybersecurity and IP enforcement means that blocking websites isn't just for authoritarian regimes any more.

That's not to say tyrants aren't paying close attention to the West's new censors. When democratic governments complain about Iran and China's net policing in 2010, expect defenses of "we're only doing what everyone else does".

2010 will see the publication of Access Controlled, a new book from the OpenNet Initiative chronicling the globalization of Internet censorship; we're excited to see it but concerned about the ways restrictions in different countries reinforce each other.

Shortly after this prediction, there was some encouraging news: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton staked out clear a position for the American Government in favor of global online freedom and against Internet censorship. But subsequent developments have been much less encouraging. In fact, as 2010 draws to an end, the United States has veered dangerously towards becoming a significant Internet censor itself.

One push for censorship has come from big media businesses, who are trying to have the government create blacklists to censor the domain name system for copyright enforcement purposes. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security have announced that they believe they don't even need new laws before they begin censoring websites, and they have begun seizing domain names. For defenders of a free and uncensored global network, this is a calamitous development, and we are already seeing reports that DHS is shutting down websites that are helping, not hurting, artists. As is often the case, censorship is hurting those it was intended to protect.

The other push for Internet censorship is a response to Wikileaks. Wikileaks has been subject to an astonishing amount of informal government pressure, which convinced a string of Internet hosting companies to drop the site. These are troubling developments.

As 2010 draws to a close, the United States faces two paths forward. There is the low road, continuing and expanding this new American brand of Internet censorship. And there is a high road: to remember that the First Amendment protects everyone's right to speak, even if the government disapproves of the things they say or the data they publish. If the United States takes the high road, there will still be a difficult and protracted battle to persuade the world's governments that Internet censorship is bad policy. If the United States takes the low road, the battle is already lost.


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