Policing the internet: a Flemish professor talks censorship vs protection


From China’s hard-line stance on freedom of expression to Belgian service providers blocking Pirate Bay and Facebook’s lack of transparency, censorship is a real issue in our increasingly digital society

Gatekeepers of information

A few years ago, a federal judge in Belgium ruled that internet service providers had to block Pirate Bay – a website famous for its peer-to-peer system that allows users to download movies, TV series, music and books without any permission from or payment to the rightful claimants.

Operators like Belgacom and Telenet did as they were told. They made the website inaccessible by a simple technique called DNS blocking, meaning that the domain, thepiratebay.be, was no longer linked to the website’s IP address. But they didn’t have the authority to remove the content of the website. Soon after, the Swedish owners of the Pirate Bay registered a new domain, depiraatbaai.be, to get around the ban.

This is a textbook example of how difficult it is for governments to take action against online content in the “grey area” of cyber jurisdiction. “In the case of child pornography, for example, it’s clear: Whether you put material online or you only watch it, you’re guilty according to criminal law,” says Eva Lievens, researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Law & ICT at the University of Leuven and guest professor at Ghent University.

“But in other cases, seemingly conflicting rights must be balanced against each other when information is made inaccessible,” she continues. “This cannot happen arbitrarily. The right to freedom of expression, which is laid down in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), must be taken into account when making this decision.”

Behind the times

The ECHR has stipulated precise criteria for online censorship by governments. First, there must be a solid legal basis for blocking or filtering content. Second, there has to be a general interest in doing so: the fight against child abuse, for example, the protection of authors, or national security. And third, the censorship has to be “necessary in a democratic society” and occur “proportionally”. 

Filtering doesn’t take into account contextual elements. It’s really all or nothing

- Eva Lievens

According to Lievens, that demand for proportionality can be sometimes be difficult, as it is open to interpretation. “An example, slightly exaggerated, would be if an entire news website were blocked because it showed one article that incited hatred.”

So if Pirate Bay enriched its websites with other, legal, content? Would it be harder for European governments to block it? Lievens: “If there is still illegal content to be found on the Pirate Bay, it could still be blocked from a legal point of view. But it will be harder to implement this in a proportional manner because the blocking technology that exists today is not fine-tuned enough.”

Indeed, the problem with governments’ blocking and filtering attempts is that they’re always running behind current practice. “Current filter systems are not very efficient,” confirms Lievens. “Every day, extremely large amounts of content are put online. There are more and more content-producers, more and more audiovisual content. We have aggregators, peer-to-peer, web 2.0… Governments are just banging their heads against a brick wall.”

Another problem is that the current filters are not very sophisticated. They generate too many false positives, which create a false feeling of security. The blacklists used by the filters need to be adapted constantly, and they may be leaked. The biggest problem with automatic filtering is that there’s no room for interpretation. “It doesn’t take into account contextual elements,” says Lievens. “It’s really all or nothing.”

Social media

If there’s one world where private companies are much more skilful than the government, it’s cyberspace. Filtering of online content by the industry is a much more common practice than filtering by the government – and it’s much more hidden from our view.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook and search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing act as gatekeepers of information. They decide what we can have access to, without telling us what we can’t have access to.

“In general, these companies lack transparency when it comes to their censorship policies,” explains Lievens. “Ok, they mention ‘the right to delete your content’ clearly in their general conditions, but you know as well as I do that few people read those. If you don’t agree, you can’t use their platforms, and you’re putting yourself in virtual isolation.”

And because most internet companies are based in the US, they contest the application of the European law. “It’s a legitimate question whether European courts can claim jurisdiction,” says Lievens. “However, in recent months, the European Court of Justice, for instance, has ordered Google to remove certain links from its index to protect the privacy and reputation of individuals.”

Great Firewall

Censorship can become nasty when governments and private companies start joining forces to maintain an online censorship system. Luckily, the countries where this is the case are a minority.

The most advanced system is undoubtedly the Golden Shield project, the surveillance system used by the People’s Republic of China to keep an eye on domestic internet traffic. The system, sometimes dubbed the Great Firewall of China, uses a mix of very traditional censorship techniques, such as DNS blocking or redirection, and advanced strategies. 

Censorship can become nasty when governments and private companies join forces

Because the Chinese censor can’t scan the entire internet for unwanted websites, the system uses a very subtle form of internet censorship, namely keyword filtering. By putting certain words on a blacklist, every webpage that contains these words is automatically blocked on the internet in China – Chinese as well as foreign websites.

These keywords include Tiananmen protests, Tibetan independence movement, Falun Gong, pornography, the right to strike, dissident, dictatorship and Adolf Hitler. If you sign up for an account on Sina Weibo, the Chinese variant of Twitter, and search for the spiritual practice Falun Gong, for example, you’ll receive a message in Chinese saying that, due to relevant laws, not all the results can be displayed.

Companies like Google and Yahoo don’t want to leave the giant Chinese market to their competitors, so they tend to yield to the wishes of the Communist Party and impose a form of self-censorship. Google has recently moved its Chinese search engine (google.cn) to Hong Kong, where more liberal laws apply, but in mainland China, internet users are still censored, and it remains to be seen if Hong Kong can keep out of sight of the Chinese censor.

Enemies of the internet

The French non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders maintains a list of “enemies of the internet”, featuring countries like Bahrain, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. In the last year, the UK and the US have been added to the list, as a result of their worldwide eavesdropping of phone calls and interception of emails.

Belgium has never been criticised by Reporters Without Borders, but France has: Some years ago, a French court demanded that Yahoo ensure that French citizens would not have access to websites containing Nazi-related content.

We prefer European regulation of net neutrality, as the internet doesn’t stop at our borders

- Tom Meulenberghs

While internet censorship may not be a big concern today in Europe, other developments may be threatening our online freedom. Internet providers have been lobbying for some time for the establishment of a “two-speed” internet: a slow lane for regular users and a fast lane for companies or people who are willing to pay for it.

Since the birth of the internet, “net neutrality” has been a guiding principle. Until today, internet providers have had no say about the bits and bytes that run through their network cables. According to Alexander De Croo, the federal minister for the digital agenda, the internet in Belgium has to function as smoothly as the water from our taps.

“There should be no distinction about what we use the net for,” says De Croo spokesperson Tom Meulenberghs. “We have to guard the open and neutral character of the internet and apply innovations to keep it neutral.”

On a European level, net neutrality is about to be embedded in legislation. “We hope that by June a proposition for a bill written by the European Council is approved,” says Meulenberghs. “Of course, we prefer European regulation of net neutrality, as the internet doesn’t stop at our borders.”

Photo: Members of protest group Anonymous demonstrate outside the Beurs in Brussels against worldwide internet censorship laws
(c) Zumapress