In light of the government’s recent decision not to regulate the internet, Hanna-Lil Malone explores the feasibility of internet censorship.

Following the first International Conference on Cyberspace in London earlier this month, Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton has claimed that the Irish government is reluctant about the idea of an international convention or treaty on Internet regulation.
A large number of countries now practice censorship or ‘filtering’ of the Internet at some level. Though Ireland has quite a good reputation for free speech and lack of regulation of online content, other EU governments do not perform as well. Italy, France and the UK have blocked certain websites, either through private deals with Internet service providers (ISPs) or via search engines such as Google. Many disagree with the filtering of the Internet, mostly because it is an infringement on one’s right to free speech. At this point access to the Internet is viewed as a basic right, and McIntyre maintains that to deprive someone of this right would seriously disrupt his or her daily life. Moreover, filtering bears a significant commercial price; it costs the service providers hundreds of thousands of euro, while also impacting upon a country’s internet-friendly reputation, thus harming inward investment. Filtering, i.e. the blocking of certain URLs, is used widely in China and prevents people in mainland China from using certain key websites such as Facebook. Still, other social networking sites and mini-blogs are widely used, and with so many people blogging it is difficult to censor everything that is submitted online. The other failure of filtering is its ineffectiveness, as it is “easily evaded and it’s capable of abuse and not something that should be developed further”, according to McIntyre.egulation. Her views echo those of Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and William Hague, UK foreign secretary, who both stated at the conference that the Internet should not be stifled by government control. According to Hague, regulation of the Internet would be “self-defeating”. UCD Law lecturer TJ McIntyre maintains that the particulars of an international convention are often not decided in an open, transparent or democratic way and are then implemented domestically. McIntyre would “overwhelmingly prefer not to see any attempts to move towards international regulation”.

Despite lack of legislation on the regulation of the Internet by the Irish government, Irish Internet users are still susceptible to blocking and filtering due to private deals made with Irish ISPs. A 2009 deal between Eircom with the music industry led to a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, disconnecting users following three allegations by the music industry that they had been sharing music. This ‘online death penalty’ is not subject to any investigation or court hearing, and as such, is vulnerable to abuse. Research has shown that the tracking systems used by ISPs to track illegal downloads are often inaccurate and lead to false accusations. Particularly at risk in this case are Internet users who have wireless modems with insecure passwords that might fall victim to ‘piggybacking’. The private deal by Eircom sets a dangerous precedent and opens the doors for other such decisions in the future. This might lead to further limitations on Eircom subscribers, however other ISPs such as UPC have yet to follow suit.

While free speech is of course an inalienable right, what about the dangerous and sinister side of the Internet?  Surely some restrictions should be put on access to certain material, for example child pornography. Initiatives in the UK such as ‘Project Cleanfeed’ have attempted to block certain sites which display images of child pornography, but the impact of these projects are limited. According to McIntyre it is “really quite remarkably ineffective … trying to prevent the distribution of images online is difficult to a point where it’s often going to be a distraction from other things that should be done.” However, initiatives which focus on the host site have been quite successful internationally. In Ireland the use of ‘hotlines’, where it is possible to report anonymously on illegal content on the Internet (which is then subsequently investigated and taken down) has worked so effectively that such content is rarely hosted on Irish sites. According to McIntyre it is the “take down” approach, and not filtering, which is the way forward.

In recent years policymakers have begun to move away from the censorship model, and towards a greater awareness of the power of social changes behind the Internet and the technologies which support these, explains McIntyre. Recent statements from the first International Cyberspace Conference seem to reflect this. More effective and sustained pressure on less compliant countries to uphold the right to freedom of access to information within their own borders is most likely to be the approach taken in the future. Hopefully, the emphasis will soon shift from the censorship model towards a greater understanding of the significant place the Internet now holds in society.