By the end of October 2002, the number of individual pages indexed by Google, currently the prime search engine, had reached almost 2,5 billion pages. Three months later, in January 2003 - that is, shortly under ten years after the birth of the web - that number had reached almost 3,1 billion pages. (5) And although Google indexes a lot, it doesn"t even index everything.
Distributed and shared information makes robust
The internet is not only a publishing tool, it is also a distributing technology. Servers all over the world keep polling one another. News servers for instance exchange articles with one another: "I have this bunch of new newsgroup articles, here ya go." "Thanks. Oh, I already have some of them. I'll reject those and take the rest."
In a similar way, routers (which forward traffic between networks and keep track of which web site is located where) assist one another in finding out the shortest route to a website and in figuring a way to get there anyway when a part of the network is down. "I can't reach www.osce.org. Can't reach their hosting provider, a shackle in the chain from me to them is missing. Do you know how to get there?" To which another router might reply: "Sure, I know another way. I'll point you. Go to that machine, then hop unto that one, and then..." Or: "I can't get there either. But I can get a few steps closer than you can. What if I ask somebody in that neighbourhood?" Or they'd say: "It takes me 42 hops to reach X. How many hops does it take you? 180? Well, here's how I do it."
All this filling in of the gaps, finding shortcuts, balancing traffic, sharing information and circumventing fall-out is built into the system. It is an integral part of the underlying structure of the internet - which is designed to work in such a way that if a connection between two distribution points breaks down, both servers will find new routes to reach one another. (6)
This basic structure is the backdrop of the famous adagium that The internet perceives censorship as damage [to the system] and routes around it. It means that a disruption in the system - no matter whether it is caused by accident, error or malice - will never bring down the system as a whole.
Adopting routing relations
A fascinating phenomenon, especially from the point of view of censorship and prevention or circumvention of it, is that internet users have adopted this principle of routing around damage as a model to base their own behaviour upon. When a web page - or worse, a whole site - is under threat of censorship, (7) website owners often utilise their human networks to route around the impending damage. They ask their contacts to take copies of the besieged pages and to publish them elsewhere, in less dangerous places. This phenomenon is known as mirroring.
And just as routers assist one another in finding the easiest way to reach a certain machine, internet users help one another - dutifully assisted by the courts, one might add, tongue in cheek - to find the locus of least resistance, places where certain material will be the least challenged and the most secure. Because neonazi sites will generally be prosecuted in most West-European countries, such groups have wisened up and have taken their information out of that continent. Since the USA provides a much broader level of protection for speech, that country has become the international host for sites like this; there, they have found political asylum so to speak. Conversely, Singaporean pages about sexuality and religion and US sites about drugs are often hosted in Europe, where such pages meet with less resistance than in their country of origin.
While governments and authorities may on the one hand dislike this internalisation of information and routing around censorship, on the other hand they sometimes hope to reap a benefit by adopting the same practice themselves. The Netherlands for instance are not very pleased by 'their' neonazi's seeking digital refuge in the United States, yet it gladly hosts sites aiming at a US audience craving more objective information about recreational drugs. Simultaneously, CNN hopes to reach and inform the citizens of Middle-Eastern countries and to circumvent the media restrictions imposed upon citizens of this region by their own governments. Indeed, the CIA has funded software that circumvents certain types of national censorship and that re-enables foreign citizens to tune in to the web version of The Voice of America. (8)
Various authorities try to limit the impact of this phenomenon by attempting to curtail the net in a variety of manners. Until now, most of these censorship efforts have generally failed. (9) In part, because computer experts are technically more proficient than their policy-making opponents and can, with some effort, figure a way around restrictions and prohibitions and develop new protocols to share and access information, and in part because censorship is by definition reactive, a response to a newly created technical reality, and will thus always be lagging behind. (10) Yet, through the course of the years attempts at curtailing the net have been getting increasingly knowledgeable and more difficult to circumvent. And while computer experts often do find loopholes in censoring software or policies, and can write software or protocols that circumvent such measures, that in turn usually means that programs are getting increasingly complicated and thus difficult to use for the uninitiated. (11)
This shifting around of information - either politically and geographically, by finding the locus of least resistance, or technically, by distributing information via rapidly evolving new protocols - is part and parcel of the net, just as integral and fundamental to it as it is on the structural level of the internet. Indeed: censorship is perceived as damage, and not only does the net itself try to route around it, but net users and developers attempt to route around it as well.
This phenomenon drastically changes the effect of national law and politics. Information that isnot legally available in a country can readily be served to a citizen of that country from a website located at the other side of the globe. And interestingly, the person requesting that information won't even notice that it is coming from elsewhere. This means that the internet has made national borders and political boundaries more diffuse than they were and has lessened their importance, or at least has undermined their strictness. National laws curtailing information are simply not as effective as they used to be. The internationalisation of information allows citizens to partake of (or distribute) facts, knowledge, relays and experiences that they would otherwise not have been able to access or share. The analogue with the effect of the Gutenberg press is evident.
New technologies create novel needs and responses
With the assistance of a cheap computer and a modem, or with an internet café in the vicinity, anybody anywhere (12) can access foreign newspapers, start publishing their own magazine, make their ideas and knowledge available to the world, read or publish stories which otherwise would never cross the border, exchange and discuss ideas with people at the other end of the globe.
A newly arisen wish is to block some of these pages. Not only some governments do so - and both China and Saudi Arabia are rather effective at it - but companies, libraries and schools do it as well, the latter two usually at the government's behest. People at home do it too.
There are two basic strategies for blocking pages: imposed blocking and requested blocking. With imposed blocking, a government orders that certain pages should be blocked nation-wide. This can be done via a national proxy (a prozy is a machine that handles all requests for web pages; it acts as an intermediary between a personal web browser and web servers on the net). The proxy is in such cases configured to refuse requests for any page that matches certain (blacklisted) criteria. Saudi Arabia for instance routinely blocks all foreign pages relating to sex and politics. (13) China, on the other hand, blocks pages based on their IP number (crudely: their internet address). (14) Australia has implemented a system blocking specific national pages, but does not block international ones. (15) In in Germany, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia has ordered ISPs and universities to block access to certain sites (mostly neonazi sites, but not only those). (16) In the US, publicly funded schools and libraries are obliged to block pages deemed to be unfit for the children and teens. (17)A nasty characteristic of this type of blocking is that almost invariably, it censors more than it purports to do. Especially blocking based on IP has dire consequences: it affects entire sites or sometimes even a series of web servers sharing the same IP, while actually only a few pages on those sites or servers fall within the scope of the prohibition. Blockages of this type are very difficult to overcome. Additionally, a shared characteristic of imposed blocking is that the citizen has no choice whatsoever in the matter.
Requested blocking on the other hand is voluntary. It takes place at the user's instigation and on the user's computer only. It is usually done to protect children and to present them with a customised, sanitised version of the net. This type of blocking is done via commercial so-called censorware. (It is this kind of software that US public libraries and schools use, but in their case, it is mandatory.)
An interesting hybrid variant was used by Scientology. The cult developed its own version of a censorware package which, at the user's end, blocks all pages critical of Scientology. Critics of the cult dubbed this censorware Scienositter, after the package of which it was a derivate: Cybersitter. Scienositter had one unexpected characteristic: it was imposed upon unwitting cult members. Scientology sold them a package to create instant "individualised" proselytising web pages with the program installed the Scienositter on the sly, thus preventing these members - without their consent - from seeing pages that Scientology deems inappropriate because they opposes the organisation's own view. (18)
While voluntary blocking pages at one's own computer is an unalienable right, blocking pages at school or libraries is an altogether different matter. Civil liberties organisations have made a pretty good case that censorware programs actually filter out more than they profess to do and have - in the USA - started lawsuits asserting that such blocking of information is in fact unconstitutional. Indeed, on May 31 2002, a federal court agreed with that criticism. The US state has appealed the ruling, and the case is currently being reviewed by the US Supreme Court. (19)
Not only is information shifting from place to place to find the locus of least resistance; measures to contain information are doing exactly the same. Slowly, the governments of industrialised countries have arrived at the general agreement that discussions about, and measures against, disputable web sites should not be carried out by themselves, but by others. In a few years time, so-called self-regulation of the net has become one of the policy makers' new buzzwords.
Self-regulation means that the industry is assigned a major role in policing content that is not clearly illegal, and therefore not directly punishable, and/or should reach agreement upon how to act when complaints are received about web pages. The industry is asked to develop, possibly in co-operation with users" interests groups (such as civil liberties and privacy organisations), rules for acceptable use, codes of conduct and procedures for the removal or suspension of disputed pages. The standard categories that are mentioned as areas where self-regulation should be promoted, are child pornography, pornography, violence, racism and 'hate speech'. (20)
Almost all European national and supra-national governmental and official advisory bodies nowadays promote such self-regulation. The Council of Europe for instance states: "International co-ordination should also involve the industry, which should be encouraged to develop codes of conduct and self-regulatory schemes. This co-ordination is also essential to guarantee the protection of minors against content which is not strictly illegal, but may be harmful and detrimental to their personal development, in an environment where traditional ways of controlling access (for example watershed rules) do not work." (21) This proposal is a rephrasal of the Recommendation Rec(2001)8 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on self-regulation concerning cyber content. (22)
Self-regulation will of course never be able to solve the fundamental problem of information travelling to the locus of least resistance. After all, when such information has found a safe haven, that new abode is by definition a country where that information is fully legal. Policing legal material is of course redundant, politically adverse and blatant nonsense. Taking this into account, the only area where general agreement is at all possible is child pornography: it is forbidden in practically all countries. Then again, precisely because the trafficking in or displaying of child pornography is illegal everywhere, self-regulation is not necessary. There are solid laws against it. And policing illegal acts should not be relegated to private parties. All other contested material - from racism to depiction of sex - is legal in one country or another, and can thus never be banned from the net.
Moving censorship out of the public realm
Apart from that, there are quite a number of drawbacks to and loopholes in self-regulatory systems. (23) First of all, and it is really begging the question, why should "content which is not strictly illegal" (to quote the Council of Europe) be subjected to any kind of regulatory measure or process? Parents are after all free - and encouraged - to install censorware if they want to protect their children, while any kind of industry self-regulatory practice affects the rights of mature internet users to access material that is "not strictly illegal", which is a rather obscure way of saying that it might be in bad taste but it is actually legal, in which case the industry has no right to prevent access to it.
Conversely, where it concerns material which is illegal in country A, but fully legal in country B where it is hosted, the industry of country A has no right to prevent anyone from accessing it. The government of country A can indeed decide to outlaw such material, but then they should take that responsibility upon themselves and not dump it on the industry.
Secondly, some material might indeed be on the edge, but countries have a fully qualified system to make decisions about the acceptability and legality of specific material: the courts. By moving the assessment of the legality of such material out of the court room, not only do the processes and the criteria by which material are judged become opaque, on top of that, they run a high risk of becoming arbitrary. Indeed, existing self-regulatory bodies - such as the censoring authority in Australia and the child pornography hotline in the UK - have already gained themselves a reputation for being remarkably furtive about their own proceedings. Needless to add that, unlike in court, the accused lack lawyers and the possibility to appeal decisions.
Thirdly, the term "self-regulation" is highly deceptive. As the above shows, it is not about the industry regulating itself, but about the industry regulating its customers. In other words, self-regulation primarily concerns itself with regulating others.
Fourthly, the industry is supposed to regulate something in which it itself has a stake, that stake being - amongst others - to have a blooming business without too many hassles. ISPs weren"t started to defend users' rights, nor are they generally willing to stand up for free speech when the effects of that speech might damage their reputation or their revenues. In that sense, ISPs and their clients become opponents whenever an ISP receives a complaint about one of its customers. Legally, the customer might be in his full right to publish the disputed material, but the ISP - facing a complaint - is not likely to assist him in to find arguments pro publication. In other words, one of the parties involved in the conflict has been assigned complete responsibility to decide upon the fine line between legality and illegality. The protection of the constitutional right to express one's opinion is being put in the hands of the industry. (24)
Finally, what is fundamentally wrong with self-regulation is that it allows governments to refuse to set rules and limits and delegate the matter to a private body, hoping to thus solve the issue. In doing so, governments are privatising censorship, without assuming responsibility and accountability for it themselves, and without offering legal redress for either those censored or for those robbed of access to the censored content.
Susceptible search engine
The gargantuan number of web pages resulting from the new digital publishing-and-distributing technique has created a demand for new meta-technologies: to wit, that of indexing and retrieving web pages and newsgroup postings. Indexing web pages and usenet postings has become a matter of prime importance. After all, what would be the use of publishing something in a newsgroup or on a web page, if nobody would be able to find it in this vast sea of exponentially increasing information? Without retrieval technologies, the only way to be informed about the existence of specific pages would be by word of mouth, which of course defeats the purpose. It would make the sharing and distribution of information a local matter once again.
Search engines provide precisely this service. When you key in a few search terms, search engines will point you to pages or newsgroup postings that contain these terms. Some search engines additionally rate pages by assumed relevance, some search engines organise them in coherent groups, some do nothing but present long lists of so-called 'hits'. What all search engines have in common is that they guide you through the web and usenet, and assist you in finding what you were looking for. Search engines have become pivotal to the net, to the degree that without them, there is no way to find your way around.
Their particular strength makes them susceptible to censorship attacks, all the more so because the possibility to access pages or to censor them, are at heart two sides of the same coin. Indeed, without the facility to sift through indices using search terms, censors wouldn"t even be able to decide what pages to block in the first place... While finding a page is the result of filtering massive amounts of data in order to select a set based on specific criteria, blocking is filtering that information in order to suppress that same set.
In the past few years, search engine censorship has been on the rise. Through a number of French court cases, the US based Yahoo auction site was forced to prevent French users from perusing nazi memorabilia; while the relevant court decisions have finally been overturned in the US, (25) by now a number of search engines have voluntary adapted their local, nationalised versions so that people consulting the German, French and Swiss version of Google will not be able to find neonazi or white supremacy content, even though these pages are quite legal in the countries where they are hosted and indexed. (26) (However, the mother of all Googles, the international Google, http://www.google.com, still lists them and is readily accessible to German, French and Swiss users.) Also, the precise criteria for dropping pages from the n ationalised search indices are completely unclear. Who decides what page is labelled as nazi-like or neonazi? On what grounds? (27) And what are the chances that these pages, after due process, would be deemed on the verge but acceptable anyway in either Germany, Switzerland or France?
The reason why search engines engage in such censorship is obvious: to prevent lawsuits. The big question for the future is: how far will this local censoring go? Will the universal index - in this case, the one at google.com, remain generally accessible? And if not, will other - by then more daring - search engines supplant them?
New monopolies: connectivity/bandwidth
So far, we have looked at new ways of distributing and new methods of censorship. Another important issue is ownership.
Many media watchdogs are worried about concentration of ownership leading to media monopolies; the Italian case (Berlusconi) springs to mind. However, there is no similar worry over monopolies on the internet.
In some countries, access to the net is completely controlled by the government. In China for instance, one needs to register before one can buy a modem; in some countries, the only body providing internet access is the government-owned telco. In countries where such a monopoly exists, it is comparatively easy to censor users: since the government controls access, it can restrict users or impose a national proxy blocking specific pages (Saudi Arabia does so, just like Dubai and Singapore).
In industrialised Western countries, monopolies are on the rise. While a country may have many ISPs providing internet access, the ISPs themselves need to buy bandwidth and connectivity from so-called upstream providers. These upstream providers in turn have their own upstream providers where they buy bandwidth and connectivity. Worldwide, that specific market is owned by four or five companies.
If you follow the line upwards in Sweden, you will discover that all ISPs depend for their bandwidth and connectivity upon one single US-based multinational: MCI/Worldcom. In an infamous case where a user's page repeatedly garnered complaints and the user's provider, Flashback, refused to block the page - the prosecutor had investigated the page earlier and found it legal - a complainant went to Flashback's upstream provider, who then decided to block the whole of Flashback. When Flashback tried to buy connectivity and bandwidth elsewhere they discovered that MCI/Worldcom was the final upstream provider in the whole country - and MCI/Worldcom had told all their clients to refuse Flashback. All this happened over one single user's page that the prosecutor had deemed legal. (28)
Currently, wireless internet is on the rise. (29) Wireless internet operates in an unregulated and unlicensed band of spectrum that is shared and available for use by anyone. Until now it was most commonly used for personal appliances, such as microwave ovens or cordless home telephones, and even for the radar 'gun' used by law enforcement to read the speed of a moving vehicle.
Unlike today's wired network, a wireless network requires little more than an access point (abbreviated as AP). Access to a wireless-based service doesn't require an expensive connection to each user - there is no need for running wires to each building, or for the installation of a satellite dish. Wireless technology is also far less expensive to deploy than the limited wireless technologies of existing cellular service providers. And, because in most countries it operates in an unregulated spectrum, anyone can deploy a wireless Access Point. Basically, a wireless access point is nothing less than a broadband network
Wireless connectivity might in the near future become one of the prime means of offering connectivity to countries lacking a telephone or cable infrastructure. There are great concerns that the "big players" in the connectivity market will attempt to block this development, fearing that wireless connectivity will lose them part of the market (a part which they themselves have not yet deemed interesting enough to explore.)
What is journalism, and who qualifies as a journalist?
One last question to ponder is what, in this post-Gutenberg era, qualifies as journalism and who as a journalist. This question is of special importance for the OSCE/FOM, since amongst its tasks is to provide early warning on censorship and other violations of freedom of expression, to respond to obstruction of media activities and to act against unfavourable working conditions for journalists.
It used to be rather straightforward: journalism was what the media engaged in, and a journalist was anybody who would work for such a medium. With the rise of the net, that definition has become too strict. After all, one need no longer be employed by a radio or television station, magazine or newspaper. Any individual with internet access can start a news magazine of his own - he is suddenly equipped with a Gutenberg press and a distribution center.
While people making a web site about their private hobby - collecting stamps, or gossiping about pop idols - are not likely to be put through any political hassle, there is nothing to say that others, who engage in more political content, will not suffer the same repression that 'classic' journalists experience. And if they do, there is no reason whatsoever to withhold from them the kind of support that their colleagues working for traditional media hope to get from the OSCE/FOM. In fact, they might need it all the more, because there are not too not many organisations standing up for them.
Apart from that, internet journalists increasingly face a new problem. Several governments - to wit: Italy, Spain, Turkey; and Finland is proposing to do the same - have imposed existing media laws upon internet publications, demanding that each and every web site owner registers himself and informs a designated authority of any updates or changes, a demand which is clearly impossible to live up to on the net. (30) Until now, laws like this have only been called upon to penalise web sites and internet journalists that do not concur with official policies.
Conclusions and recommendations
The rise of the internet creates all new kinds of questions pertaining to freedom of the media and the freedom to access media. We have seen a number of these questions in the above, and there are questions this article hasn"t even touched upon. How are texts distributed and accessed nowadays? Will ownership of texts (copyright) remain the same? (31) What is the place and meaning of internet journalism, as compared to broadcasted or written journalism? How are media laws applied to the net? What does censorship look like in a post-Gutenberg epoch, and what do media monopolies look like?
In answering these questions we should at least take the following points into account:
Copyright Karin Spaink.