Updated (3:32 p.m.) It's pretty problematic how former Senator Chris Dodd is vehemently defending the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) with the same argument that despots have been using to justify censorship for years. Now the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and one of SOPA's most outspoken proponents, Dodd's logic sort of folds back onto itself. "Hollywood is pro-Internet. We stand with those who strongly oppose foreign governments that would unilaterally block websites and thus deny the free flow of information and speech," Dodd said on Tuesday at the Center for American Progress. "So I want to make it clear right at the outset that our fight against content theft is not a fight against technology. It is a fight against criminals."
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We've heard this line before. Indeed, targeting "criminals" serves as a handy, sweeping justification for any ruling power to whittle away at civil rights in the name of the law. In learning more about the history of web censorship, we stumbled across some startlingly similar instances in which the anti-Internet regimes -- here's a list -- explained how they're actually fighting crime, rather than freedom when the block people from visiting websites.
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The Great Firewall of China is probably the most famous of the various government Internet censorship efforts. The government can apparently add new keywords to block certain kinds of sites or even specific kinds of content whenever it wants. Take earlier this year when China shunned the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and blocked news sites from reporting on Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident who won this year's prize for standing up for freedom of speech. Why'd they do that? "Liu Xiaobo is a criminal," the Chinese Foreign Ministry explained.
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But SOPA is about enforcing copyright law, Dodd might contend. Even the tech companies that oppose SOPA admit that they're open to finding better ways to protect intellectual property, though Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain recently told The Atlantic Wire that the government hasn't done any real data-driven research to prove that it would even be effective. The problem with the law, critics say, is less the intended purpose than it is the possible execution. The Chinese government has taken this position too and should the U.S. government agree to something like SOPA, some say, it could open up even more censorship around the world. "In China 'copyright' is one of many excuses to crack down on political movements," Chinese blogger Isaac Mao told CNN recently. "If a new law like SOPA is introduced in the U.S., the Chinese government and official media will use it to support their version of 'anti-piracy.'"
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The Indian government is less consistent than China in how it censors the web, but the reasoning is often the same. Just this week, India's acting telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal spoke out about blocking content on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter in order "to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online." (Read: keep citizens from criticizing the Indian government.) How do they justify that? The digital rights advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation explain:
The world’s largest democracy has been known to censor online content from time to time, typically under the guise of national security or obscenity. The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team is tasked with issuing blocking orders, while Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure allows police commissioners to identify and order the blocking of material that contains a threat or nuisance to society.
Again, it's not specifically about censoring the internet. It's about punishing criminals.
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Syria's been particularly duplicitous about misinformation lately, but blocking the internet in the name of the law has been going on there for years. In 2008, The Economist reported on the censorship problem in Syria by focusing on how the government interpreted laws quite broadly, not only to censor the Internet but actually convict bloggers of crimes:
For "defaming and insulting the administrative bodies of the state", the president of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, Mazen Darwish, was recently sentenced to a salutary ten days in jail. His real crime was to report on riots in an industrial town near Damascus, Syria’s capital. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based lobby, said his case brought the number of journalists and "cyber dissidents" imprisoned in Syria to seven. …
For several years Syria has been an enemy of the internet. The security services keep opposition figures and even ordinary bloggers under surveillance. The main internet service-provider bans 100-plus websites. Most sites carping at President Bashar Assad’s government are silenced, as are many Kurdish and Islamist sites. A yellow screen flashes up with the words "Access Denied".
So Syria is extra bad because they not only block the sites, they throw bloggers in jail. Because they're criminals, the government contends.
Update: Google chairman Eric Schmidt invoked Dodd on Wednesday afternoon, when he said that SOPA would "criminalize linking and the fundamental structure of the Internet itself." (See what he did there? Folding Dodd's logic back onto itself…) Schmidt continued, "By criminalizing links, what these bills do is they force you to take content off the Internet" a measure known as censorship in many circles. Including this Harvard law professor who says that SOPA violates Americans' First Amendment rights.