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The Case for Country-Specific Censorship

‘Blocking’ content in some countries is better than removing it from the Internet

Fitz_globe_(2710799656)The ongoing suit against Google, Facebook and nineteen other internet companies, for hosting ‘objectionable’ content on its social networking platforms, has raised some interesting questions around issues of online free speech and censorship. One aspect that has missed people’s attention is the fact that Google and Facebook have already complied with the court’s order for the content to be removed. Of particular significance is their implementation of the court’s direction. It appears that both Google and Facebook have removed content from Indian-specific domain names only. A spokesperson for Google said that its review team has “disabled the content from the local domains of (Google) search, Youtube and Blogger”.

One may recall Google’s recent announcement that it would direct users of Blogger (the Google-owned blogging service) to country-specific domain names. For example, users from India who want to visit the SpicyIP blog (spicyipindia.blogspot.com) will automatically be redirected to the Indian domain of the site (spicyipindia.blogspot.in). This decision came close on the heels of Twitter making a related announcement. In effect, Twitter gave itself the right to withhold content in specific countries, while keeping the same content available for users from other countries. As a result, unlawful content would not be removed from the ‘Internet’ (specifically, the World Wide Web), but will remain inaccessible to users accessing the site from a particular country. So perhaps the word ‘removal’ in this context is a misnomer, since it is near impossible to completely censor something from cyberspace. An alternative term could be ‘blocking’, which although negative in appearance, it possibly the more appropriate phrasing.

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Under the previous system where content was blocked globally, irrespective of which country the user was from, the only option for online service providers was to implement it across the World Wide Web. The new strategy appears to be a sensible one given the dubious decisions off late by Indian courts on the standards of ‘objectionable’, which if implemented globally, would censor that content permanently for users across the world. With country-specific blocking, even Indian residents could access the allegedly unlawful content using proxies that mask one’s IP address (which could reveal a user’s location) and anonymising software (such as TOR). With the existence of such tools, one can rest assured that not every Chinese citizen is oblivious to the Tiananmen Square protests, and this should allay questions about its potential value.

Under the new policy, affected users will be shown a notice indicating when the content was withheld. This is an improvement from the system under Indian law, where no such notice is required to be displayed. In an extreme, but likely case, content removal without any notice to users attempting to access the content could result in a ‘memory hole’ (as explained by Pranesh Prakash in this interview). Moreover, Twitter has stated that it will forward all takedown notices to the Chilling Effects Project, so that a database can be created and this data can be analysed.

From a business and legal perspective, it must be kept in mind that internet companies like Twitter and Google, with their global presence, are subject to a host of national laws. As they begin to offer services and set up offices in more countries, they may receive requests that are considered unlawful in one country, but not in another. As the Twitter announcement notes, pro-Nazi content is banned in France and Germany (but not in India). Country-specific blocking, as opposed to a universal removal, would certainly give a boost to free expression and access to controversial content from users in other countries. Effectively, internet users will no longer be subject to the cultural and moral standards of another country.

Most of the criticism is directed at the possibility that the new policy will allow for misuse, especially in countries that are facing civil unrest, as witnessed during the Arab Spring. There is certainly a valid concern around the risk of censorship and restricted access to certain types of information, but this policy appears to be a better alternative to any form of global censorship. That said, there are still some questions that remain unanswered – What kind of removal requests will be honoured? Can hashtags and user accounts also be blocked? If so, would it also be implemented on a country-specific basis? There are several related issues that require consideration, but this revised policy appears to be a move in the right direction. And as the title for Twitter’s announcement notes,‘Tweets Still Must Flow’.

(Images from janoma.cl and the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library under a Creative Commons license)

This was originally published on myLaw

About Amlan Mohanty

Amlan is a lawyer based in India. He has been writing about technology and intellectual property for the last five years.