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Is national censorship the new norm?

This post is by Elena Ziebarth, who works in new product development at SmartBrief.

The New America Foundation and Slate hosted a fascinating panel yesterday morning, “Authority, Meet Technology: Will China’s Great Firewall Hold.” Bringing together experts on China, business and legal ethics, and the Internet, the panel discussed whether Google had made the right business decision in entering China, the importance of Internet freedom in economic and human rights and security, and the greater ramifications of Google’s departure from China on the country’s long-term growth and place in the World Trade Organization.

Some of the most compelling points, which are worthy of greater reflection, include:

  • The U.S. policy on Internet freedom rests on its centuries-old principles of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. The reminder of the freedom of assembly and its being taken as a given is particularly compelling when you consider social networks. Joining groups and being a member of social networks only works when you feel “safe.” In countries that routinely censor or control Internet activities, the very act of joining a group could reveal your personal identity and also those of your friends, putting an activist in real danger.
  • Internet companies must realize that they are actually media companies — they are giving people access to information and ideas through search engines and social-networking sites. More than one of the panelists noted that a lack of awareness of this media role has placed many Internet companies in difficult situations when they operated in countries with censorship laws. By acquiescing to government demands of self-censorship, these Internet companies set a precedent that could become the de facto norm for whenever they enter a country that restricts speech, assembly, etc. Over time, this acquiescence could make domestic censorship and conformity to government demands the norm for any multinational.
  • Censorship, filtering and blocking are actually forms of barriers to trade in services. Google’s business model is based on an open and free Internet being in existence. Censorship of the Internet is a growing trend — not just in China but in countries such as the U.K. and Australia. The commercial impact of censorship — i.e., the missed sales or growth opportunities — has yet to be fully realized.

So what do you think? Does a country have the right to demand that Internet companies censor or filter search results or block access to social networks? Should Google and other Internet companies only operate in countries that have Internet freedom like the U.S.?

Image credit, ugurkoban, via iStock

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