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Google, and censorship

Posted by: sgb


Is Censorship possible in the cyber age?

An article in the Cape Times (here reported in MaximumPC)this morning stated that Google will create a website listing (Transparency Report) where it has been asked (maybe forced) to censor searches. This is in response to the furore caused when Google bowed to Chinese pressure to censor results there.

This set me thinking to how censorship could work, and whether it is possible to 'lose' something (maybe your identity) in the public domain. This has become particularly relevant in South Africa with the new threatened 'Protection of Information Bill', where not only will it be illegal to report on certain specific issues, but it would be illegal to state that those specific issues exist on which you cannot report.

There are three possible ways for censorship to work:

(1) destruction of the original article and hoping references to that article are not pervasive;

(2) stopping search engines from even searching for particular items (such as an event or a name); and

(3) stopping the networks or browsers from transmitting a particular name (even if in a document) or displaying it.

1) Destruction of the original is the most complete but virtually everything that has been published on the web is available, if you know where to find it. Old news items, blogs, and articles may have been archived but are still available to searches. The problem is how to find what you want is you are not sure of the details, and only have a vague recollection of what you are looking for. As long as reporters are allowed, and have reported on the event there will be references to the article or the event, even if oblique. Your personal search strategy would have to be more subtle, a round-about way to get what you are looking for.

2) A direct halt on search engines is probably the easiest to implement, but rely on the search engine company (probably need to persuade the top 5) allowing you to put in a list of censored searches. The trick would be to just return a 'no pages found' link so no-one knows there is censorship. However, this is the easiest one to overcome if you know there is censorship, as you can play around with your search criteria. Possibly a government (or Manager with anti-freedom bias) could enforce this.

3) Halting transmission at networks is probably the easiest IF you have control of the single entry point as in China (or even here in SA if the government controlled the only line out). It would slow the net considerably as every page would need to be vetted. As to bugging browsers, again a person with a mission in a browser company could implement a patch which allows censorship. This would be quite easy, but would rely on everyone implementing the patch, and being online to accept updated censored words.

A film released in 1992 - The Net, starring Sandra Bullock - portrayed a freelance systems analyst who has her identity wiped out: credit card, drivers licence, birth certificate, by baddies who have access to the CIA database. Without the web there would be no informal references to you, so it is difficult to prove you exist.

These days to delete a person's identity you would need to put a stop to one more source: social networking sites. With one in 14 people using Facebook alone, this is a major source of information. Censor the top 3 such sites and you would probably be removed from history.

Conspiracy theory stuff this. But with Google making a play for the OS space (on PCs as well as cell phones), with it going into the social face with a Facebook competitor, and now aiming for the TV OS market, who knows. Maybe it is time for Orpheus?

Previous blogs on Technical Issues by sgb:

3D printing

Internet statistics and Facebook

Save bandwidth by setting up email correctly

Using your cellphone as electronic wallet


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