Censoring The 'Net Is Hard
from the even-for-authoritarian-governments dept
Over the last few months, I've been doing research on a forthcoming paper for the Cato Institute on the network neutrality debate. In the next few weeks, I'll be doing a series of posts on the major themes of my paper. My goal will be to highlight some interesting stories from the tech world, and then highlight their broader policy implications.
This week, the blogosphere is abuzz with the story that Iran may shut down the Internet on the date of its elections next week. I should note at the outset that I'm a little bit skeptical of this story, which seems to be rather thinly sourced. It's been picked up by a bunch of news outlets, but they all point back to the same International Herald Tribune article. That story cites two unnamed Iranian media outlets, which apparently don't even agree with each other about the reasons for the supposed Internet blackout. And the idea of blocking Internet access on election day just doesn't make a lot of sense. I can imagine why an authoritarian regime would shut down the Internet for a week or two before the election to suppress access to information about the election. But a block on the day of the election -- especially one that's announced a week ahead of time -- doesn't seem like it would do the government any good.
In any event, this certainly wouldn't be the first time Iran has instituted broad restrictions on Internet access in an effort to suppress the free flow of information. In 2006, Iran reportedly required that home Internet connections be reduced to 128 kbps. That doesn't make a lot of sense either; 128k is still plenty of bandwidth to download compressed audio, for example. But the Iranian government turned to a broad restriction on bandwidth after other efforts at content filtering failed. It seems that "as fast as they put up information roadblocks, Iranians have found detours around them." The only way the Iranian government has found to cut off the flow of information it doesn't approve of is to restrict the flow of information, period.
Some advocates of network neutrality seem to think that network neutrality is an issue of free speech. The fear is that AT&T or Verizon will use sophisticated filtering technologies to block content and websites they don't approve of. A conservative telco might block liberal blogs or YouTube videos, say, or maybe Ford would pay telcos to block access to Chevy's website. But if the government of Iran -- an institution with an almost unlimited budget and the ability to throw people in jail -- can't keep information it doesn't like away from its citizens, it's awfully hard to imagine that AT&T or Verizon would be able to do so. Iran has found that the only way to limit access to content it doesn't like is to limit access to the Internet altogether. Obviously that's not going to work for telcos, which are in business to make money. There are certainly some plausible arguments for network neutrality regulations, but fears of telco censorship are pretty low on the list.
Other posts in this series: