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US Takes Censorship Lessons from China
NPR reported in October that the Chinese government was censoring the internet. Many "problems" similar to those caused by the Chinese censorship program show up in the US as well. (This is a reformatted version of an article published on 12/17/2002.)
On October 4, 2002, NPR's On the Media reported an interesting application of Skinnerian psychological conditioning ("China Google," On the Media, http://www.wnyc.org/onthemedia/transcripts_100402_chinagoogle.html). The Chinese government, the report claims, has been covertly frustrating searches on the Google search engine when certain political keywords are used. Originally, the Chinese government did not use these covert methods; instead, they simply rerouted attempts to connect to Google to search engines tailored to Chinese users such as the University of Peking's search engine. Rerouting was met with protest because Google is so widely used for research, so the government allowed access to Google once again.
Google crawls the web, taking photographs of sites as it goes, providing a look at a site to users even if the site is not available. This is problematic for governments which do not want certain sites to be available to people. Even if a site is made unavailable by a government or an ISP, Google seems to make the site available through the cached pages, the pages it photographs as it crawls the web and makes available to users.
On the Media reported that China has now found a way of dealing with the Google problem: with searches using certain keywords "some of the results'll start feeding back, and then as if the system is thinking better of it, only half the page of results'll load, and from that no more Google for you for about 20 minutes," according to Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law professor and the faculty co-director of the Berman Center for Internet in Society who was interviewed by On the Media. Even if the partial list of search results provides you with a useful link, clicking on that link may take you to a page stating "Is currently unavailable" or "Network traffic" or "Link temporarily down." As Brooke Gladstone pointed out in the NPR report, these are the sorts of ordinary problems that come up all the time on the internet so there is no sign of censorship. People are simply frustrated in their attempts to find certain types of sites until they give up.
China's attempts to covertly undermine freedom on the internet are probably not surprising to anyone. What was surprising (and only a very little bit surprising) in the "China Google" report was this: that the US has seen its first government-mandated instance of ISPs blocking certain sites. Zittrain reported that "the State of Pennsylvania […] passed a law last April entitling the attorney general to designate certain destinations on the internet as having child pornography on it. That pornography is not protected by the First Amendment in the first instance, and the Pennsylvania attorney general can get a court order demanding that any internet service provider serving Pennsylvania customers see to it that those customers can't get to those web sites."
Blocking child pornography on the internet does not offend the moral sense of the majority, for better or for worse. The "China Google" report should not be of concern only to the Chinese, however. The Pennsylvania case helps to highlight the fact that the US also has its hands in the operation of the internet.
The difference between the China case and the Pennsylvania case may strike some as extremely relevant to the justification for the censorship, but in the couple of months since the NPR report I have found a list of problems with the flow of information on the internet that are similar to those described by Zittrain. The following list was compiled not by seeking out these problems. I simply ran into these errors in my daily routine of reading up on the news and gathering historical data. The following list indicates where and when I discovered the problems, a short description of the problem, and also gives some information about the site or article if necessary.
Dead GOVERNMENT Links to National Security Council documents:
The following three White House sites are given by
NASA as links to NSC documents:
*http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP/NSC/html/nschome.html -- This particular link directs you to http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/index.html to find current info on the NSC, but there is nothing substantive to be found at this url. You are provided with a short biography of Condoleeza Rice, a short history of the NSC, and a link to only the most current NSC document dealing with the preemptive strike doctrine.
* 12/10/02 NYTimes.com: "Judge Says Cheney Needn't Give Data On Energy Policy to GAO" -- Email Article feature failed to deliver article while appearing to work correctly from the NYTimes.com site
* 12/6/02 NYTimes.com: "Israeli Forces Kill 10 Palestinians in Gaza" by REUTERS -- Email Article feature not operational
* 10/27/02 http://www.Guardianunlimited.co.uk: "Gore Vidal claims 'Bush Junta' Complicit in 9/11" by Sunder Katwala -- Email Article feature appeared to work correctly but article was not actually sent out; original Gore Vidal article not available online due to unexplained copyright issues
* 11/23/02 NYTimes.com: "Putin Questions US Terror Allies" -- link to article failed: error message stated "Authorization Error"
* 11/14/02 NYTimes.com: "Letter Submitted by Iraq to the United Nations" -- Email Article feature failed to deliver article while appearing to work correctly from the NYTimes.com site
* 11/3/02 NYTimes.com: "California Doctor's Suicide Leaves Many Troubling Mysteries Unsolved" by Jo Thomas -- Email Article feature not operational; article indicated Dr. Larry C. Ford may have worked for the CIA on CBW (Chemical Biological Weapons program); article stated that the get-away driver in the attempted murder of Dr. Patrick Riley (a crime for which Dr. Ford was a suspect) refused to name the hitman in exchange for a lighter sentence and was then sentenced to 26 years
* 11/2/02 NYTimes.com: "How a Deal Creating an Independent Commission on Sept. 11 Came Undone" by Carl Hulse -- Email Article feature not operational; copy/paste attempts failed
* Washington Post links to Osama bin Laden's fatwas are operational but no text turns up on the screen
Other Internet Problems
* many NSC documents, although listed on the Federation of American Scientists website, are not made electronically available; links to resources outside of FAS provide no links to NSC documents in many cases
* CIA Electronic FOIA Reading Room search engine cannot find documents using the keywords "national security memorandum" even though documents with these keywords are found in the CIA Electronic FOIA Reading Room
* Link from The Nation to http://www.globalexchange.org (globalexchange.org is a social justice website) begins to download without connecting (problem occurred in October or early November)
* Links to Nambla websites from a Google search take you to dead sites or anti-Nambla sites (due to the Pennsylvania case?)
* Google searches for links to Cuban sites and Cuban citizenship information produce lists of sites that are either unhelpful (no relevant information, for example) or take a long time to load
These nineteen different instances are not all of the China-like censorship cases I have found, but only the ones I have taken time to jot down while I am working on the internet. Unfortunately, just as the "China Google" report stated, these instances, in many cases, look like ordinary internet problems.
But in light of the Chinese government's practices, which make clear how hard it is to detect censorship on the internet, and in light of the Pennsylvania law and the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties, it is not irresponsible to report a list of internet errors as a sign of US involvement in internet censorship for political purposes. In fact, without a leak from the US government to the effect that a covert internet censorship program is in place, the only evidence available to us as to whether or not a China-like censorship program exists in the US is the list of problems we encounter on the internet when pursuing political and historical information.
Historical and political information is still available… somewhere. The problem is that the information is hard to find and internet errors make it difficult to seek out this information. The errors make research inconvenient. If we are discouraged from researching history and politics, we have not been forced to give up our pursuits and so the blame can be said to be with us. And the sources of the errors that discouraged our inquiries will look like nothing more than normal, unintentional infrastructure problems.
But there is evidence of intentional attacks on the internet causing the problems I listed above. For instance, while investigating the false claims by the US government, faithfully reported by the New York Times on December 11, 2002, that the North Koreans were the world leader in arms proliferation, I discovered a report originally published by the New York Times on the Common Dreams site (a site reporting on arms proliferation and related matters) placing the US at the top of the pile in arms proliferation. The report, "Going Backwards: Global Arms Sales Rise Again, and the US Leads the Pack" by Thom Shanker (August 20, 2001), also showed that North Korea was not even in the top five nations dealing arms around the world. When I went to e-mail this article to myself so that I could have it in my files, Common Dreams put up this message:
We're sorry but we have been forced to temporarily disable this feature.
During the night of August 25th our 'Share This Article With Your Friends' feature was hacked into by unknown parties who used us to spam tens of thousands of e-mail addresses with a link to a pornographic website.
We will return the feature as soon as we can guarantee that it can't be abused again.
Common Dreams NewsCenter
Comments? webmaster [at] commondreams.org
Frighteningly, this is similar to what has happened on many of the other sites from which I have been collecting information concerning US wrongdoing at home and abroad, without the message about the hackers however.
This is not the only instance of hacker attacks on US sites dealing with the questionable activities of the US government. Michael C. Ruppert's site From the Wilderness, which has been pursuing links between the Bush administration and the planning and execution of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, has had to set up mirror sites because hackers have managed to shut his site down.
Ruppert does come off as a crack-pot conspiracy theorist by misrepresenting himself and the influence of his reporting. For instance, his website, http://www.copvcia.com, declares that his testimony to the Senate helped to link the CIA to drug trafficking. However, what he calls his "testimony" is a letter he wrote to the Senate, and Dick Gregory, the 60s comic, is the source used to link Ruppert's reporting to the embarrassment of the CIA. Still, I have done some checking on Ruppert's sources concerning his case for the Bush administration's involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and his sources have checked out so far. (I recommend to anyone who reads Ruppert's 9/11 timeline to check the sources for herself. Ruppert should not be trusted without supporting evidence for his claims.)
To make matters worse, the US media, even the so-called liberal media outlets such as The Nation, have taken it upon themselves to try to discredit Michael C. Ruppert. David Corn, in his May 30, 2002 article for The Nation, "The 9/11 X-Files," and again in a post he made on July 12, 2002 on The Nation's website, reported that an article cited by Ruppert to help tie Bush to 9/11 did not exist. It took me all of three minutes to find the article Ruppert cited. I contacted the editors of The Nation and David Corn to tell them of the error and complain about other failures in Corn's report. No retraction has been printed and no one from The Nation has contacted me to refute or even acknowledge the evidence I sent them concerning Corn's fallacious claim.
There is clearly an attempt in the US right now to censor the internet and the people who use the internet to develop lines of inquiry not acceptable to the establishment. How we are to counter the censorship and what its source is is yet to be established, but it is easy enough to demonstrate the existence of this threat to our liberty and our ability to check the US government's activities and claims. Something must be done.
In the list of grievances found in the Declaration of Independence is the complaint that the King of England located information in places made inaccessible to the people by distance. Without unimpeded access to information about the activities of our governments, we cannot intelligently assess the formation and implementation of their policies. Whatever the source of the errors encountered on the internet, they are more than simple mistakes. They are threats, intentional or otherwise, to the ability of the people to play a meaningful role in their governments. These threats need to be taken seriously, and they need to be investigated and solved. Democracy is the highest national security issue, not terrorism.