Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Bleeping Truth

So, you want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the bleeping truth? Not only has this administration put government surveillance back on the map, and in ways that would make J. Edgar Hoover proud, but it has also engaged in the kind of censorship of scientific, and military, documents that would raise an eyebrow or two even at the Kremlin. And, burgeoning governmental intrusion poses a far graver threat to Internet safety than any garden variety computer virus ever could.

Among the more controversial issues former Vice President Al Gore mentioned last night on Larry King Live was this administration's unprecedented proclivity for blacking out parts of scientific reports on global warming, and anything else it considers "inconvenient." A study recently conducted by Oxford and Harvard, released last week, reports that fully two-thirds of the 40 countries surveyed block or edit Internet social, and political posts.

While the nations surveyed include the usual suspects like China, Iran, and Korea, so-called "social filtering" is said to be happening in France and Germany where Web sites that deny the Holocaust are blocked. Whether we agree that Nazis and Holocaust deniers are not a desirable bunch, giving any government the right to decide what we see, and what we say, online may portend a dangerous trend. As John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, suggests"The survey shows us that online censorship is growing around the world." (Agence France Presse) Coming soon to a Web site near you?

Already in China, Internet censors not only block Web pages, but entire Web sites based on what they perceive to be threats to national security. Companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google, as well as media moguls like Rupert Murdoch are giving the green light to filtering, and deleting content which may be objectionable to the Chinese party line. Indeed, corporate profits make strange bedfellows.

But, more importantly, this kind of zeal for protecting national security isn't peculiar to the Chinese alone. As attorney-general-gate is quickly revealing, there may be many, thousands of miles from Beiing, on Pennsylvania Avenue, who want to reserve a front row seat, whether warranted or unwarranted, and check in with those sites that present a "dissident" view of government. And, after all, how does one distinguish between filtering and intelligence interception?

While some countries like Ethiopia and Pakistan are disabling blogging by blocking entire domains, others like China and Iran are only monitoring those Web sites they consider to be extremists, and/or those of political dissidents. While few would argue that some regulation of the Internet was inevitable, who can refute the ubiquitous threat to civil liberties posed by pervasive online censorship?

It's important to keep in mind, too, that the U.S. and most of Europe were not among those surveyed, and the folks at Oxford expect to find more nations that participate in the insidious practice of Internet snooping and blocking. The World Wide Web is, relatively speaking, in its infancy, and this is the first major study of its kind. Consider this in the context of what Al Gore, and others, report as censorship of scientific reports.

Mr. Gore is right. For those of us who look to the Internet for the kind of investigative reporting that would never make it past the editor's desk at mainstream newspapers, we'd better wake up to the fact that, sooner or later, we will see the same intrusion, and inability to tell the bleeping truth in cyberspace that we now see in the mainstream marketplace. Unless we want to lose our unfettered, and mostly unpaid, right to rant on a cyber soapbox, we'd better start paying closer attention to censorship. The Defense Department has already blocked active service members from visiting You Tube on department computers, so it's just a question of time before the blocking spreads to a personal computer near and dear to you.

The only way to prevent this administration, or its clones, in coming years, from blocking out dissenting political and social commentary, on the World Wide Web, as well as anything it considers a threat to "national security" is to ask Congress to pass legislation that makes it a felony to intercept, edit, or block any post, Web site, or domain without a Court order. We must act now to protect the First Amendment, in all its applications, before it is so neutralized that it will no longer be able to protect us.