Hallmark of Authoritarianism
China’s Virtual Cops Pinpoint Web Dissent
The censor's sword pierces deeply into the heart of free expression.
- Earl Warren
by Mure Dickie
With their big blue blinking eyes and their quirky personal websites, there is no denying the cuteness of the cartoon cops at the front line of China’s battle for control of the internet. But the role played by Jingjing and Chacha, the animated online icons recently introduced by police in the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, is entirely serious. The cartoon couple patrol the city’s news and discussion websites to scare off anyone who might be tempted to use online anonymity to break China’s laws, says Chen Minli, director of the Shenzhen City Public Security Bureau’s Internet Surveillance Centre.
"Now internet users know the police are watching them," Ms Chen says in an interview at the Bureau’s gleaming new 28-storey building in central Shenzhen.
Such official online oversight is highly controversial elsewhere. Human rights activists fiercely condemn the efforts of China’s ruling Communist party to stifle online political debate. In recent weeks, moves by Yahoo, Microsoft and Google to bow to varying degrees to Beijing’s party censors have exposed them to fierce criticism from both customers and members of the US Congress. But the no-nonsense Ms Chen and her comrades in the Surveillance Centre are proud of the online enforcement role played by Jingjing and Chacha (whose names are made up of the Chinese characters for "police").
"All around the world there are internet police, but they always operate backstage... No other internet police have stepped to the front of the stage," she says. "We really feel that this is a historic breakthrough."
Jingjing and Chacha operate by appearing as clickable adverts on local websites and as virtual users of the hugely popular QQ instant messaging system operated by Nasdaq-listed Tencent. In a demonstration at the Surveillance Centre, part of an internet division that has seen its staff more than double to 100 in less than a year, officer Xu Qian shows how the Jingjing icon keeps pace whenever a user of a local discussion website scrolls down a page. "He is just like a policeman, interactively moving along with you. Wherever you go, he is watching you," Mr Xu says.
By clicking on the icons, users can report crimes or learn about the rules on online conduct. Jingjing and Chacha also have their own websites with a selection of music including the Song of the People’s Police. Ms Chen, a police technology veteran, says inspiration for the personal sites came from her 15-year-old daughter who keeps her up to date on new internet possibilities. But deterrence remains the main goal for Jingjing and Chacha, who are just part of a huge system of government internet control that includes blocks on thousands of websites and sophisticated content filters.
Ms Chen says the mere appearance of the icons makes users think twice before posting sensitive messages. When Jingjing and Chacha arrived on local websites, the number of postings that had to be filtered out because of suspect content fell more than 60%. When the pair send warning messages to websites under investigation for alleged fraud, the sites’ operators often immediately shut them down, she says.
China’s internet laws do not stop at such crimes. Users are also barred from a range of offences including the posting or even consultation of content judged to challenge the political order, incite secession, promote "feudal superstition" or harm the "honour of national institutions." Such laws have been used to jail people who peacefully question the Communist party, and they lie at the heart of debate overseas over the role international internet companies should play in China. Ms Chen says since their official online launch in January, Jingjing and Chacha have not played any role in such cases. She has little time for suggestions that China controls the internet too tightly.
Only one in 50 internet users wants to break the law, and they are the only ones to complain about a lack of liberty, she insists, the web is "completely free" for those who stay within the "legal framework". Indeed, Ms Chen suggests US officials might want to consider adopting their own Jingjings or Chachas to police Google services following the US company’s refusal to share information about its searches with the government. In any case, she says, overseas critics should not judge China by their standards.
"In my family, if my child does not lay her chopsticks down properly, then I will smack her, but maybe in your family you are too relaxed about such things," Ms Chen says. "Each family has its own rules and countries are the same."
Source: news.ft.com 17 February 2006
Ms Chen "smacks" her 15-year-old daughter for laying down her chopsticks improperly? How sad.
Censorship Reaches Ridiculous Extremes
Censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there.
- Clare Boothe Luce
by Kari Lydersen
Humpback whales, the asexual reproduction of mushrooms and House Majority Leader Dick Armey: these are dangerous topics that children, or adults for that matter, should not be learning about. This statement sounds ridiculous, but that is effectively the message being sent by the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which mandates filters being placed on internet-linked computers at public schools and libraries to protect children from indecent material.
However, "indecent" is defined by the mere presence of a wide range of keywords and phrases, including "breast," "pussy," "under18" and "cum." While these terms may be frequently used in XXX porn sites, they are also used in different contexts in serious news stories, job training sites and government web pages - for example to refer to someone who has graduated magna cum laude. Given the wide net cast by the key word-based internet filters, they end up denying youth and adults access to sites dealing with public health, biology and zoology, academics and more.
CIPA is just one of a host of recent actions by government agencies, school boards and other institutions to limit what we read, see and hear. While censorship is nothing new, the growth of the internet, the general rightward shift of the government and the institution of the war on terror have recently taken things up a notch. The moves are usually under the guise of protecting people from pornographic material or terrorism. But on many different levels, this censorship has debilitating effects.
CIPA was introduced by Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and passed by Congress in December 2000, but then the American Civil Liberties Union and American Library Association filed a suit seeking to overturn it. The bill was put into action in schools around the country last fall. But in May 2002 the portion of the act related to public libraries was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. Proponents of the bill appealed to the Supreme Court, which is now considering whether filtering will be required in public libraries that receive federal funds. The explosive growth of the internet over the past decade has opened up a whole new world of information, a wealth of knowledge at the fingertips available to anyone with access to a computer and modem. While it revolutionized information technology, it also set new standards. The use of the internet has become not just a luxury but a necessity for "making it" in many careers and other aspects of life.
In February the Free Expression Policy Project (FEPP), a youth-oriented anti-censorship group, filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief before the Supreme Court arguing against CIPA and including the testimony of other youth groups opposed to filtering. And the internet isn't the only place where the information that young people receive is being censored. One of the main thing teenagers and other young people look for on the internet is sexual information, including potentially life-saving facts on safe sex, contraception, STDs and HIV/AIDS. Under CIPA, that is almost impossible, given that the filters screen out not only pornographic sites but even ones that refer to humpback whales, Dick Armey or pussy willows.
With cyberspace closed as an option, students might also look to their school clinics or health classes. But there they run into another brick wall. As part of the 1996 welfare reform laws schools receive special federal funds to teach abstinence-only education. This policy has been criticized by the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association, the ACLU and others as blatant censorship - censorship with potentially devastating effects, since students who don't learn about safe sex are at risk of catching HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. It is also ineffective. Studies show that teens who receive abstinence-only education are at no less risk of teen pregnancy or STDs than those who don't. And reports have already shown that abstinence-only education is creating a generation of ignorant youth. The ACLU notes that one California boy in a sex-ed class asked where his cervix was, while others maintained they could get pregnant from having oral sex. Teachers who deviate from the curriculum are in trouble - for example a 7th-grade teacher in Belton, Missouri was disciplined for simply telling students that oral sex does not lead to pregnancy. "The proper response under abstinence-only policy would have been that only complete abstinence can prevent pregnancy," said Stephanie Elizondo Griest, communications director of the FEPP.
If straight teenagers are kept in the dark about their budding sexuality, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens have it even worse. Most internet filters automatically block any site having to do with homosexuality. "The category [blocked by the filter] will often be 'homosexuality/gayporn,'" said Griest. "But there are some very good public health sites dealing with homosexuality. How are these kids supposed to find out about their sexuality if they can't do it at school and can't do it over the internet?" One way students can get support is through the gay/lesbian and gay/straight alliance clubs that are springing up on high school campuses around the country. But even these are not safe havens. Throughout the south, Midwest and other parts of the country, schools are moving to shut the clubs down. Usually they deny funding, often meaning that in order to comply with anti-discrimination law they end up also pulling funding from student clubs across the board.
The attacks on these clubs and much of the censorship students suffer is fueled by the rightward political movement of the current federal administration and local school boards and legislatures. Many of the successful internet filtering companies are linked to conservative groups, and the abstinence-only curriculum has a heavy church-based focus, with Christian right groups receiving federal funding to institute their curricula in schools. In 1993 the Supreme Court ruled against the inclusion of references to Christianity and the concept of "inviting Christ as a chaperone on dates" in abstinence-only curriculums. But the teaching of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and other religious connotations remain. "Like efforts to discourage the teaching of evolution, abstinence-only education is promoted by religious groups and individuals in an attempt to impose their own beliefs on all students in public schools," says an ACLU report.
Some parents' and religious groups' fear of any sexual content extends beyond sex-ed to all text books. For example in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2000 school board members would not approve a science book unless a picture of a vagina was cut out or covered. Just recently in New York, a high school teacher was officially reprimanded for putting Russell Banks' Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 novel Continental Drift on an optional reading list because of five pages that contained material some parents dubbed inappropriate. Student newspapers are also regularly censored, for everything from articles about sex, sexual assault and drugs to editorials that are political or critical of the school administration.
"The most common justification is that school officials see something they perceive will reflect negatively on the school, whether it's criticising the cafeteria food or how the school spends its money," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Centre, which received 2,525 requests for aid on censorship cases in 2001. "These are institutions that can't deal with public scrutiny. They function more as CEOs of companies than educators." And it doesn't stop with teens.
If the portion of CIPA that affects libraries becomes law, it will also affect the large portion of adults who rely on libraries for their internet access. Since these are mostly lower income adults, and a disproportionate number of minorities who don't have computers and internet access at home, the FEPP's amicus brief argues that CIPA essentially widens the already vast digital divide, putting people from certain demographics at a significant disadvantage in job searches and other endeavours. "One of the big problems with internet filters is their exacerbation of the digital divide" said Griest. "In this day and age internet access is essential to our democracy. People who don't have computers at home are at a big disadvantage."
The influence of the Christian right has also swayed government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health to remove information about sexuality and abortion from their web sites. "The CDC is under siege by those who want to replace research-based prevention [of STDs and HIV] with ideology," said James Wagoner, president of the group Advocates for Youth. Wagoner noted that the abstinence-only campaign is "quickly morphing into an anti-condom campaign. It's ideology versus science. This would be considered censorship in any day and age, but to do this in this era of AIDS is unthinkably irresponsible."
A group of legislators led by Congressman Henry Waxman (Democrat - California) have been protesting the removal of information from government web sites. And sex isn't the only thing the government wants to censor. Civil liberties proponents also worry that the war on terrorism will cause or is already causing censorship, either outright or in the form of self-censorship. The fear of government surveillance, including the provisions in the Patriot Act that allow internet monitoring and spying on what people obtain from libraries and bookstores can't help but have a stultifying effect on the free exchange of information.
Marvin Rich, program director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, notes that the current political climate led even the traditionally liberal University of California at Berkeley to prohibit an administrator from sending out a letter with quotes from radical Emma Goldman, as part of a fundraising attempt to preserve the university's historic Emma Goldman papers. "The vice-chancellor for public affairs got very upset, saying people would think the university was against the war in Iraq, which is something the school can't take a position on," said Rich, noting that the school eventually reversed its position and let the letter go out.
Is the censorship situation worse today than ever before? While it might seem like it to some, Rich gives a reality check. "All these people think it's worse now than it ever was," he said. "But the truth is it comes and goes. There have always been huge attempts by the government to control what people read and see."
Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.
Source: alternet.org AlterNet 13 March 2003
Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it.
- Nadine Gordimer
Once you permit those who are convinced of their own superior rightness
- Archibald MacLeish
Censorship always defeats it own purpose, for it creates in the end
- Henry Steele Commager
I have a particular interest in this topic because this website is classified as "pornographic" under CIPA guidelines. My attempts to understand why have proven fruitless. If this site is censored out, I can imagine the vast quantities of information that are screened out along with it. That's throwing out the baby with the bath water. I am of the opinion that parents should be able to help their children understand why checking out pornography at the library is neither desirable nor necessary. But most parents have neither the time nor the inclination...
Justices Confront Library Web Filters
Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.
- Potter Stewart
Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
- Gen William C Westmoreland
by Robert Schwaneberg
Law requires public sites that take US cash to block pornography
Internet users work at the Philadelphia Public Library last May. The Supreme Court yesterday
Washington - Are Internet tem1ina1s in public libraries just a technological extension of their bookshelves or a new means of communication meriting special legal protection? That was the question the nine justices of the US Supreme Court confronted yesterday as they reviewed the constitutionality of a law requiring public libraries that accept federal funding to install Internet filters intended to block pornography.
Defending the law, Solicitor General Theodore Olson insisted the same constitutional principles that allow libraries to refuse to put pornographic magazines or videos on their shelves permit Congress to withhold federal funds unless libraries keep porn off their Internet terminals. "The First Amendment does not require libraries to sponsor the viewing of pornography," Olson said. "Libraries have from time immemorial chosen not to put it in their libraries."
Paul M Smith, the lawyer representing the American Library Association in its challenge to the law, contended the Internet is a new means of communications subject to new rules that do not apply to the acquisition of books. "It is the most pure form of public forum that you can imagine," Smith said, noting it offers access to a world of information that no library could fit on its shelves. Having decided to offer it to their patrons, libraries cannot be forced to screen out the portions the government does not like, he added.
After hearing an hour of oral arguments, the justices now must rule on the constitutionality of the Children's Internet Protection Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Last May, a special three-judge federal court in Philadelphia ruled the law unconstitutional after finding the software filter it mandates mistakenly weed out "tens of thousands" of Web sites that are not pornographic. Olson insisted the fact that the filters are not perfect makes no difference. He argued librarians make similar judgments when they refuse to stock a magazine that has carried pornographic pictures in the past even though it might clean up its act in future editions. He contended the same rules must apply whether libraries are deciding what to put on their shelves or how much Internet access to provide. If the Constitution prohibits them from blocking Internet pornography, he argued, then librarians risk being sued for refusing to stock a particular author's books. That argument drew a skeptical reaction from several of the justices. "This is a case about the Internet. It's not a case about books," Justice John Paul Stevens said. "Not every library can have every book," Justice David Souter added. "We don't start with that assumption in the case of the Internet at all."
But the justices were equally skeptical of Smith's argument that, by offering Intemet access, libraries have created a new kind of electronic town square where everyone's right to speak is protected by the First Amendment. If so, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested, then a public school library that connects to the Internet "has to let the worst possible pornography come in over the school computers." Under those circumstances, he added, "I suppose a lot of schools wouldn't have computers at all in their libraries." Breyer may have been anticipating the next case if the justices agree with the lower court. The Internet protection act also requires public schools to install Internet filters on all of their terminals but that provision has yet to be challenged.
Breyer and Souter both challenged Smith's argument that the law violates the rights of library patrons, noting librarians can shut off the Internet filter at the request of an adult patron. "All you have to do is say, 'I'm an adult, I want it unblocked,'" Souter said. Smith replied that the law appears to require librarians to demand a good reason from the person making the request, saying many would be reluctant to "go up and say, 'please turn off the porn filter.'" By forcing all libraries accepting federal funds to put filters on all their terminals, Smith said, the law "starts to try to invade the professional judgments of librarians."
Emmalyn Rood, a 17-year-old college sophomore who is among those challenging the law and attended yesterday's arguments, said the justices didn't seem to appreciate how intimidating it is for patrons to have to make such requests. Rood said when she was 13 and coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian, she used the unfiltered Internet terminals at her public library so she could do her research anonymously. "Never in a million years would I have approached a reference librarian to get them to take off the filter," she said.
Following the arguments, Representative Ernest Istook (Republican-Oklahoma) said he authored the law because "it's only common sense to say taxpayer money does not have to be used to subsidise pornography viewing on the Internet." In a recent Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll, 85% of those surveyed said public libraries should block adults from accessing Internet pornography sites. Smith said 93% of American libraries have decided not to put filters on all of their Internet terminals. In New Jersey, some libraries use no filters, others filter most terminals while leaving a few reserved for adults unfiltered, and some use sophisticated systems that allow patrons to set the level of Internet access for themselves and their children.
Robert Schwaneberg is a member of the Star-Ledger staff
Source: The Star Ledger (New Jersey) Thursday 6 March 2003 photo credit Dan Loh, Associated Press
I suppose just carrying the above story with its enumeration of words that will activate the censor would be enough to keep this site from being accessed in a funded library. Sigh...
Library Filters Out Its Own Website
by Eugene Volokh
Library Director James Oda earlier this month attempted to access the library's new Web site - www.fleshpublic.lib.oh.us - to show it off for the library staff. After 3 months of work by the staff, Oda was justifiably proud of the site. Unfortunately, the library computer denied him access...
Oda said he never gave much thought to the library's name - named 70 years ago for businessman Leo Flesh, who donated the money for the library's current location. But Net Nanny, a filter the library uses on all the children's department computers, did not care much for "flesh" linked to "public." Fortunately, a change in the address - www.piquaoh.org/library.htm - has allowed the library to access its own site.
Thanks to opinionjournal.com and to my friend and reader Gil Milbauer for the pointer.
Source: volokh.blogspot.com/2002_11_17_volokh_archive.html (current site is volokh.com/) 17 November 2002
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