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Online censorship: now trending

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Jillian C. York is the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She writes regularly about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world.  She is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online, and writes for Al Jazeera English. 

The filtering (blocking) of websites was once assumed by many to be something conducted by the most authoritarian of regimes.  But while we’ve all heard of China’s Great Firewall--that imaginary wall that divides the Chinese-hosted Internet from the rest of the world’s sites, allowing for the government to easily block anything that doesn’t pass muster--China is only one of dozens of countries that censors the Internet.

Across the board, the Middle East and North Africa rank poorly as a region.  While some countries--such as the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman--mainly target “offensive” or “inappropriate” content, caught up in their filters are various social networking websites. One such example is Tumblr: While it appears that none of the aforementioned countries intended to block the popular microblogging site, the technology they use to conduct filtering, made by Canadian company Netsweeper, classifies Tumblr as “pornography” due to the number of pornographic blogs hosted on the platform.

Other countries in the region, such as Bahrain and Syria, block political opposition sites, in addition to social networking sites and other content.  Morocco only blocks a handful of websites, but that handful includes information on the Western Sahara conflict.  And Tunisia, which prior to the January revolt was one of the world’s worst offenders, has recently reinstated censorship, blocking pornographic websites in response to a court order presented by a group of conservative judges.

While the filtering of pornography is unlikely to enrage the majority of Tunisians, some citizens are concerned that reinstating any type of filtering could initiate a “slippery slope,” leading to more censorship down the road.  Others are concerned about the particular mechanism that enacted the filtering: a court order.  In nearby Turkey, court orders have led to the blocking of YouTube, Wordpress, and a number of sites, on the grounds of defamation or “insults to Turkishness.”

Filtering political websites is obviously detrimental to building a democratic society, but indeed, any filtering at all can have lasting negative effects.  The blocking of Tumblr in several Gulf countries due to a miscategorization by the filtering software provider effectively limits access to a wealth of informative blogs: Tumblr’s popularity in Egypt indicates its value as a political tool.  Problematically, filtering at the government level is often without accountability or oversight, and often relies on lists created by outside organizations or third-party software developers, leaving plenty of room for error.  Filtering is also costly, and given the ease with which it’s circumvented by savvy users around the world, may not be a worthwhile expense for governments to take on.

Ultimately, determined individuals will find ways to utilize digital tools for development, for organization, and for education.  Starting with the basis of an unfettered Internet can only help.

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