Not entirely omniscient
29 August 2014 12:08 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mandy de Waal

The pesky fundamentalists and internet censorship

  • Mandy de Waal
South Africa’s self-appointed morality police are storming the gates of this country’s internet freedom with hysterical, fear-based arguments to get government to batten down the hatches against evil pornographic predators. Problem is, the government is listening intently to this lobby and the result could be disastrous for our country, according to Ethan Zuckerman, a globally recognised thinker on censorship and the internet, and a Harvard fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Early exposure (to pornography) is related to greater involvement in abnormal sexual practices, particularly rape and child molestation.” That’s just some of the unsubstantiated ‘logic’ that’s been presented to the South African government by well-meaning Christian groups who want to protect local women and children at all costs from the evils of pornography.

These religious zealots, eager to turn South Africa into a nanny state, banded together with the Justice Alliance of South Africa, which created a home-made anti-porn bill that it wants government to adopt. The bill seeks to alter the local telecommunications landscape radically by transforming mobile and internet service providers into anti-porn watch dogs.

The bill suggests a new role for mobile and internet service providers and states: “Any internet service provider or mobile phone service provider who distributes, or allows to be distributed through the internet or through a mobile phone in the Republic of South Africa, any pornography, shall be guilty of an offence and liable, upon conviction, to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years, or to both a fine and such imprisonment.”

The telecommunications industry wasn’t too worried about these moves until late July when deputy Home Affairs minister Malusi Gigaba stated he wanted to fast-track a process to realise an anti-porn bill by parliament. This bill would rely heavily on content filtering by service providers. At the same time a porn symposium was held in conjunction with government, moral and religious groups, together with the pro-filtering group Watchdog International. In addition, there was the church-led Justice Alliance Network, which drafted its own bill to influence government, as well as Doctors for Life, authors of the assertion that exposure to porn turns kids into rapists and child molesters.

Doctors for Life is a non-profit organisation driven by a Christian agenda whose achievements include opposing “the acceptance of traditional healing as a medical profession”; opposing the decriminalisation of prostitution; and making submissions to the SA Law commission for a new act related to homosexuality.

Backed by evidence from Doctors for Life, the Film and Publication Board (FPB) issued an urgent call for action to “protect children from exposure to pornography”. The FPB cited the research by Doctors for Life and accused local television stations of not protecting children. FPB chief executive Yoliswa Makhasi cited two infringements, saying in March 2010 DStv’s Animax had screened bestiality and that the SABC3 had shown an Oprah episode dealing with pornography before the “acceptable watershed time”.

In the debate about an anti-pornography bill it appears our government is listening to Christian-inspired propaganda, instead of sane voices of reason. They’d do well to listen to the likes of Ethan Zuckerman, a global authority on the issues of censorship and the internet.

Alongside his position at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Zuckerman is the co-founder of Global Voices Online. He also sits on the boards of Kenyan crisis crowd-sourcing phenomenon Ushahidi and Ghana’s PenPlusBytes, as well as the US programs board of the Open Society Institute.

Zuckerman strongly opposes censorship in general, saying that it is a “slippery slope” that drives further interest in censored material, and that filtering soon ends up in government hands that can’t resist using it for their own means. “I think it is a terribly slippery slope to constrain access to any sort of speech. What happens is as soon as you censor speech you tend to give it a great deal more power, and I worry that when people censor they inadvertently tend to call much more attention to that which they censored.”

This phenomenon, says Zuckerman, is sometimes referred to as the “Streisand effect”. “There was a case where the singer Barbara Streisand sued a photographer who had posted tens of thousands of photographs of the California coastline, including a photograph of her house. It was a study of photos to study erosion, but she was very concerned that it might compromise her privacy, so she sued to have this photo suppressed.” Zuckerman says its unlikely people would have seen the photo in the first instance, but once it was suppressed everyone wanted to look at it. “You might say that censorship is the sincerest form of flattery. If your government decides that you have produced something so dangerous that it must be censored, perhaps that’s a sign of your power or your influence.”

Speaking about pornography specifically, Zuckerman says once you start filtering pornography it is difficult for governments not to use these tools for political ends, a trend that he says is evident in his global research of countries that censor and filter the internet. “Countries that begin filtering for social reasons – they say we want to [protect] our citizens from pornography – have a very hard time not going the extra step and filtering for political reasons. Whether or not we think it’s OK for Saudi Arabia, which is a very strict Islamic state, to control access to pornography and to alcohol websites, the danger is that once you put the tools in place the tendency is that countries will then start filtering out opposing political views. That is where things get dangerous because we all want the internet to be an open and useable platform for civil discourse.”

Zuckerman says that despite filtering and censorship, there are a range of freely available tools that enable people to get round these systems. “There are countless tools out there designed to help people evade internet censorship either conducted by a state, or conducted [by] an institution. A lot of people use these tools because they gain connectivity at their school, their workplace and they are trying to get around the filter that has been put in by the high school, the university, or their employer. In fact, the first internet censorship circumvention tools were really not to avoid state-based filtering but were written to help high school students access sites that were blocked by their school.”

Many of these tools are free and supported by advertising, while some cost money or are virtual private networks that charge a premium for high-quality service and unmitigated access to content. “There is a class of tools that we refer to as blocking resistance proxies and these are proxy servers that try very hard to stay one step ahead of the government,” says Zuckerman.

I understand that societies make decisions about certain things are beyond the pale,” says Zuckerman. “In the US child pornography is addressed essentially by trying to take it down and arresting anybody who is posts it. And I am not going to be an absolutist who tries to defend child pornography. What I do say is that it is terribly worrisome that these tools, even if used for social filtering, very, very easily turn into tools for political filtering.”

Zuckerman says there are as many as 50 countries around the world that engage in some kind of internet filtering, ranging from nominal filtering to aggressive censorship. “We see for instance that Singapore years and years ago announced that they essentially reserved their rights to filter the internet and filtered only about 100 sites. By contrast there are countries that filter quite aggressively but are transparent about it. So, for instance, while Saudi Arabia filters the Net a great deal, at least you know that it is filtering the internet. You get a blocked page that states that you are prevented from reaching a site and there is an appeals process where you can say: ‘I think that site was miscategorised; I am not trying to look at naked women, and I am trying to get information on breast cancer.’ The countries we are really worried about are the countries that filter but don’t tell you about it.”

One such example is Tunisia which claims not to filter, but according to Zuckerman does in fact do so and “puts up a slightly misspelled version of a Microsoft Internet Explorer error page when they are blocking you from accessing a site. So they are doing a very sloppy job of both filtering the internet and lying about it.”

Zuckerman says he’s most worried about countries that filter but also try influence access to information. “There we might think about Vietnam which doesn’t just block access to the internet but also attacks websites they deem to be dangerous, and tries to make them not just inaccessible in Vietnam, but also in the rest of the world.”

One of the leading researchers on global internet filtering and censorship, according to Zuckerman is the OpenNet Initiative (ONI). A collaborative partnership between the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto; the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; and the SecDev Group in Ottawa, the ONI researches filtering and surveillance without bias, and in a credible manner, to look at the unintended problems with launching internet censorship systems.

You’d think it only happens in very repressive societies, but unfortunately it is now not only very repressive societies but also at times fairly democratic societies. This is one of the reasons why everyone is so concerned with Turkey engaging in international internet filtering. It is one of the reasons why people are tremendously worried about Australia and the possibility that Australia might pass a filtering rule,” says Zuckerman who states that filtering is concentrated in Asia, particularly South and South-East Asia, but also China and the Middle East. “Ethiopia is also a very aggressive censor of the internet worldwide at this point, which most people don’t know about. Ethiopia unfortunately is enormously politically repressive, and that political repression enters into control of cyberspace.”

If we don’t counter those pesky Christians armed with filtering bills and ready-made censorship laws, South Africa could join repressive states like Ethiopia where content choices come ready made and dissenting voices are screened out in the name of protecting society. Our government would do well to start listening to unpartisan voices who speak from a neutral agenda in order to get a more balanced view on the subject of internet filtering. DM


Read more: “Gigaba wants porn law fast-tracked” on TechCentral, and “Porn bill needs to be stripped” on TechCentral. Read more about internet filtering at the OpenNet Initiative, and see OpenNet’s findings on Africa. Play spot the logical flaws by reading JASA’s home-drafted porn bill, John Smyth of JASA’s address to government, and Doctors for Life’s presentation to government on porn. Or you may want to look at the Christian Action Group’s view on The Bible and Pornography.

  • Mandy de Waal
mandy de waal BW

Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.

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