Daily Archives: 2007-05-31

Should there be a Best Practice for censorship?

A couple of weeks ago, right at the end of the Oxford Internet Institute conference on The Future of Free Expression on the Internet, the question was raised from the platform as to whether it might be possible to construct a Best Current Practice (BCP) framework for censorship?

If — the argument ran — IF countries were transparent about what they censored, IF there was no overblocking (the literature’s jargon for collateral damage), IF it was done under a formal (local) legal framework, IF there was the right of appeal to correct inadvertent errors, IF … and doubtless a whole raft more of “IFs” that a proper effort to develop a BCP would establish. IF… then perhaps censorship would be OK.

I spoke against the notion of a BCP from the audience at the time, and after some reflection I see no reason to change my mind.

There will be many more subtle arguments — much as there are will be more IFs to consider, but I can immediately see two insurmountable objections.

The first is that a BCP will inevitably lead to far more censorship, but now with the apparent endorsement of a prestigious organisation: “The OpenNet Initiative says that blocking the political opposition’s websites is just fine!” Doubtless some of the IFs in the BCP will address open political processes, and universal human rights … but it will surely come down to quibbling about language: terrorist/freedom-fighter; assassination/murder; dissent/rebellion; opposition/traitor.

The second, and I think the most telling, objection is that it will reinforce the impression that censoring the Internet can actually be achieved! whereas the evidence piles up that it just isn’t possible. All of the schemes for blocking content can be evaded by those with technical knowledge (or access to the tools written by others with that knowledge). Proxies, VPNs, Tor, fragments, ignoring resets… the list of evasion technologies is endless.

One of the best ways of spreading data to multiple sites is to attempt to remove it, and every few years some organisation demonstrates this again. Although ad hoc replication doesn’t necessarily scale — there’s plenty of schemes in the literature for doing it on an industrial scale.

It’s cliched to trot out John Gilmore’s observation that “the Internet treats censorship as a defect and routes around it“, but over-familiarity with the phrase should not hide its underlying truth.

So, in my view, a BCP will merely be used by the wicked as a fig-leaf for their activity, and by the ignorant to prop up their belief that it’s actually possible to block the content they don’t believe should be visible. A BCP is a thoroughly bad idea, and should not be further considered.