The Slippery Slope of Web Censorship

For a brief period last week, the Chinese government hijacked foreign search engines. Chinese Internet users trying to search on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft were redirected, first to a Chinese government anti-pornography Web site and then to the Chinese search engine Baidu.

There is speculation in China that the blocking may have been intended to prevent Chinese citizens from learning of the Dalai Lama's historic meeting with President Bush. But with discussion of the hijacking forbidden on Chinese blogs and news sites, the truth may never be fully known.

The Chinese action comes just weeks after Burma's military dictators abruptly shut down the Internet in that country in an attempt to block the world from seeing the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. When the Internet plug was pulled, the brutality escalated, with the nation's revered Buddhist monks paying a high price for their bid for freedom.

Repressive countries continue to try to have it both ways: They crack open their borders just enough to take advantage of the Internet's economic potential while enacting draconian restrictions to ensure that the medium cannot be used to foster political freedom.

Democratic governments understand the connection between human rights and Internet freedom. They have been quick to condemn the Internet crackdown in Burma and China and the lack of Internet freedom in much of the world.

But at the same time, democratic countries are themselves increasingly turning to content blocking and online surveillance to address terrorism and other perceived dangers at home. In doing so, they are in danger of sacrificing their moral authority to ensure that the global Internet moves toward greater freedom.

Recently, the European Union justice commissioner signaled plans to introduce a package of anti-terrorism proposals that will require member countries to block Internet sites that provide information about bomb-making.

In Germany, there is an uproar about a proposal to give the government powers to spy virtually, using e-mails infected with spyware.

Citing terrorism concerns, the Swedish defense minister is seeking broad new powers to monitor without court orders e-mail traffic in and out of the country. The proposal has enraged Internet users in Finland, whose Internet communications are often routed through Sweden.

The Australian government is poised to permit the Australian federal police to develop a "blacklist" of local and international terrorism and crime sites that must be integrated into Internet filters and blocked.

And in the United States, where the president's warrantless wiretapping program has already seriously compromised Internet freedom, the U.S. government is now arguing before a federal court, in a challenge to a U.S. law aimed at "childproofing" the Internet, that it has the power to impose restrictions on legal Web sites operating anywhere in the world.

Advocates have been quick to point out that if the United States tries to impose its laws on content abroad, it could spark an arms race in global Internet censorship. If the United States claims that it can dictate rules for content lawfully posted in Denmark, then surely the Chinese government will assert that it can directly censor content posted in the United States, even if the content is legal here.

Democratic countries often act as if the actions they take at home to block content and monitor Internet communications have no impact on civil liberties beyond their own borders. But the traffic that flows over the Internet knows no borders, and restrictions on Internet freedom in one country often affect all users of the network.

The threats that the free world is struggling to address are real. But each time a democratic country turns to content blocking or warrantless e-mail monitoring as a solution, it establishes a precedent that repressive regimes will be quick to cite back when criticized for their repressive Internet policies.

Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.