Since the Internet burst onto the scene, beneficiaries of the online world's free-flowing exchange of information have included software vendors, publishers of adult content, gamblers and the long-suffering subjects of authoritarian governments. Politicians, though, have been less than thrilled by a medium that defies borders and legal restrictions. Recently, authorities around the world have stepped up their efforts to bring the 'Net to heel.
Government attempts to control the internet are nothing new, but they've acquired a special urgency in the wake of September 11. Even in the First Amendment-cloaked United States, the FBI has leaned on internet service providers that host Web sites allegedly sympathetic to terrorists. Under pressure, ISPs have pulled the plug on Muslim extremist sites, and on at least one that championed the Irish Republican Army.
But Web sites that find themselves unwelcome in one location simply relocate to another. In a story about a site that represents Islamic militants in Chechnya, Australia's Sydney Morning Herald reported that "[o]ne day the site is available at an address in the UK, the next day access is denied via that server, but the site is mirrored in Malaysia, South Africa or Germany."
People less than thrilled by the prospect of Islamic terrorists publishing with impunity will be even less happy to hear that the Chechnyan site is far from unique. Wired recently reported that of the groups tagged by the State Department as terrorist operations, "[m]any of the 28 blacklisted organizations operate Web sites where they issue press releases, threaten their enemies, raise funds and even recruit members."
Fighting terrorism is undoubtedly a good cause, and the world would likely be a better place without electronic recruiting brochures for al-Qaida. So, after years of boasting that "information wants to be free," should Web surfers abandon their affection for free speech and embrace moves to impose national laws on an international medium?
There might be an argument to be made for letting law enforcers chase their targets around the World Wide Web — if we could guarantee that only truly evil people would suffer. But that's not the case.
The French government recently lost an effort to force California-based Yahoo to abide by French law. The target of Gallic wrath was the use of Yahoo's online auction service by some customers to sell Nazi war paraphernalia. France is understandably sensitive about World War II, but memorabilia from that war is perfectly legal in the U.S., and more than a few G.I.s brought trinkets back from overseas.
French politicians argued that since Yahoo was accessible over the Web by their citizens, the company had to abide by French law banning Nazi material. A U.S. judge strongly disagreed, and ruled that Yahoo is subject only to American law.
Few people may get worked up over the fate of grandpa's war souvenirs, but there was really much more at stake. After all, one of the first banned books to find refuge online was "Le Grand Secret," a scathing critique of France's late President Francois Mitterand. The book was banned in its home country, but found a worldwide audience through the internet.
A ruling in favor of France in the Yahoo case might have driven not just Nazi trinkets from the internet, but also the sort of political criticism that is recognized as at the core of free speech in the U.S.
And that's just France, a democratic country that is at least grudgingly ranked as part of the "free world." The Web is also a potential stomping ground for explicitly unfree regimes in China, Singapore, Cuba and elsewhere.
China's efforts to stifle online dissent have involved the usual tactics of authoritarian regimes in the modern world. Officials attempt to filter content, register online users and close unauthorized cybercafes. Still, dissidents and even casual users have found ways around the controls so that they can exchange messages and read forbidden Web sites based overseas.
Recently, though, Chinese authorities have found some solace in "geolocation" technology. Geolocation allows Web servers to identify users by their country of origin and bar them from retrieving information that their political leaders have made illegal. Of course, such technology is relevant only if the publishers of online content are required to obey the laws of other countries — that is, if the French argument for imposing borders on the Internet prevails.
And the fact is that despite the Yahoo ruling, the world has been creeping in that direction. For example, some British online casinos have agreed to bar users from the U.S. because American politicians frown on games of chance.
Fortunately, technologies of censorship breed technologies of freedom. American entrepreneur Stephen Hsu started SafeWeb partially to develop software that breaks down government attempts at control. The company's Triangle Boy system lets people in authoritarian countries access forbidden information by "borrowing" the internet addresses of volunteers in free countries.
And even the most draconian attempts to impose national borders on the internet will leak like a sieve as long as just one jurisdiction is willing to act as a haven for information, and make it available to the online masses.
But before we begin fretting over the dangers of an unrestrained internet, let's remember that we can't enjoy our own freedom without granting it to others. To exercise our own rights to free speech, we have to allow for the possibility of pro-terrorist Web sites based in Malaysia.
In return, the French and their allies may learn to accept that they can't sweep the internet of criticism directed at corrupt politicians, or keep granddad from auctioning off his war memorabilia.
— Arizona Daily Sun