‘Zensursula’ Germany’s new President?

After massive protests from the blogoshpere and net activists last year against Minister Ursula von der Leyen about the introduction of an internet filter to block child pornography, it has been suspiciously quiet about internet censorship for a while. The protests in 2009 centered around the German Minister who has been named ‘Zensursula’ (a mix of her first name and the German word for censorship) by the blogosphere and her blunt statements about the dangers of the internet.

Her ignorance of any criticism was shocking to many and the blogosphere mourned the day ‘Zensursula’ signed the internet censorship treaty (Internetzensurvertrag) as ‘black friday of the internet’.


Now net activists are holding their breaths as ‘Zensursula’ is considered by Chancellor Merkel to take the position as Germany’s new president, after current president Horst Koehler surprisingly resigned this week. Protests in the blogosphere are massive and a Facebook group against her candidacy has attracted more than 15,000 people in a few hours.

The decision is expected to be made by Friday. We’ll see if the blogosphere has to release another obituary.

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The Netherlands and France Team Up to Tackle Internet Censorship

Ignoring continuous discussions about the state of internet filtering and censorship in their own countries as well as a multitude of other European countries, the Dutch and French Foreign Ministers have expressed concern over a ‘recent rise in internet censorship’, pointing the finger mainly at Iran.

They’ve come up with an initiative to set up an international code of conduct against internet censorship and are inviting other countries, international institutions, civil society organisations, IT companies, academics and human rights defenders to come to Paris in early summer to discuss a code of conduct.

The aims of this code of conduct are to give internet freedom a legal bases, enable monitoring of freedom of speech on the internet, provide assistance to cyber dissendents and restrict the export of internet filter and blocking technologies by internet companies.

Considering that the sophisticated electronic surveillance system that was used by the Iranian government to monitor the internet activities of citizens supporting opposition leaders, was developed and sold by two European companies (Nokia and Siemens), this move seems reasonable. Monitoring of freedom of speech on the Internet is done already by several non-profit organizations, most prominently by ‘Reporters without Borders‘ and in my opinion should stay a task of independent organizations not of states with political interests.

It will be interesting to see who is actually going to join France and the Netherlands in their pursuits and if their discussions will reflect upon internet filtering and censorship in Europe at all or if they are just pointing their finder elsewhere.

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Polish Internet Censorship Plans Abandoned After Public Outcry

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk

Prime Minister Donald Tusk has pulled the plug on a controversial bill that would establish a register of banned websites in Poland, in reaction to a chorus of disapproval from the online community. The bill was a part of the P.M.’s plan to eliminate all gambling outside of casinos.

Gaming machines and online gambling are widely used in Poland, and were at the center of a recent scandal involving members of Tusks own political party. Following the scandal, Tusk took an incredibly strong anti gambling stance. He sought to ban online gambling, and furthermore, amend Telecommunications Law 179a, allowing all online content to be filtered by the government.

Fearing a step backward in Poland’s hard earned democratic progress, Polish citizens expressed their opinion through a flood of emails, blogs, and articles protesting the censorship plans.  One letter addressed to President Lech Kaczyński, encouraging him to challenge the bill, had been signed by over 75,000 Polish Lawyers, academics, politicians and bloggers. The heads of three polish internet associations: the Polish IT Association, the Polish Chamber of IT and Telecommunications, and the Modern Poland Foundation also sent letters calling for the bill to be dropped.

They felt website censorship or ‘blacklisting’ would be a violation of their privacy, and aimed to punish the entire country for the actions of select few.

The bill’s morality aside, the process of full content filtering bears a dangerous resemblance to tactics used by the communist government, something the citizens of Poland know all too much about. Furthermore, if content filtering was enforced, snatching up a small amount of personal freedom, how long would it take for the government to utilize even more invasive strategies?

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UK: Liberal Democrats Challenging the Digital Economy Bill

As the Digital Economy Act was passed both by the House of Lords and the House of Commons weeks ago, Britain was faced with some potentially serious acts of Internet censorship: the controversial clauses of the Digital Economy Act seek to tackle unlawful copyright sharing (P2P) by allowing courts to order ISPs to block websites offering copyright infringing content and cutting of internet users that have been caught downloading.

The government was heavily criticized by the press for rushing the bill through in a late nights session after just two hours of debate. One of the biggest opponents to the aforementioned clauses are the Liberal Democrats who fear that whistleblower sites like Wikileaks, that mainly carry copyrighted material, could be blocked and consequently freedom of speech would be restricted due to dangerously ambiguous wording of the Act.

Now that the Liberal Democrats form a government coalition with the Conservatives, the controversial clauses of the Digital Economy Act are being challenged once again. The Liberal Democrats held a special Sunday conference in which its members committed to repeal parts of the controversial act:

“Conference urges Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs to take all possible steps to ensure the repeal of those sections of the Digital Economy Act 2010 which are inconsistent with policy motion Freedom, Creativity and the Internet as passed at Spring Conference 2010.”

One can only hope that the outcome of this debate is a revised Digital Economy Act 2010 that will support its initial goals to support growth in the creative and digital sector, tackle online piracy and support the availability of public service content without restricting freedom of speech and freedom of information.

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Italy’s view of the Internet: friend or foe?

There has been a lot of controversial news recently involving Italy and the Internet and it is hard to determine whether the Internet is seen as a friend or foe.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

To start with, there has been the nomination of the Internet for the Nobel Peace Prize. Italian’s version of Wired Magazine was first campaigning the nomination of the internet for its role in igniting “dialogue, debate and consensus”. The nomination has been validated through an official proposal of 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

A few weeks later, Italiy shocked the world by convicting three Google executives for a video that had been published on YouTube back in 2006. Judge Oscar Magi in Milan found the Google execs guilty of invading the privacy of a disabled teenager who had been filmed being bullied by other pupils. Google took down the video after they had been notified of its existence and even helped authorities to locate the teenager who posted it but nonetheless, the Italian legal system valued the protection of privacy higher than freedom of speech. This court ruling reflects the current tensions between Europe’s commitment to privacy and US companies’ American conception of free expression.

Italy is debating about the future of the Internet. On the one hand, there is a new media decree that effectively applies the same rules to traditional broadcasters as well as video on-demand sites, which has already been approved. In a country where broadcast media is heavily controlled by its prime minister, this new media decree doesn’t seem very promising in regards to freedom of speech and the expression of opinions. On the other hand, Italy’s President of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini, recently invited Lawrence Lessig (American academic and political activist) to give a at the Italian Parliament, to debate openly about the future of the Internet.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

It will be interesting to monitor the progress of this debate to see in which direction Italy is heading. Although all European countries have to deal with the same EU directive, the outcome and discussions held in each country are different and reflect the country’s understandings of internet governance.

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A comment on the title and topic of this blog

George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four"Nineteen Eighty-Four, the famous novel by George Orwell, was published in 1949 as a warning about the menaces of totalitarianism.

Recapturing the content quoting Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature:

“the novel is set in an imaginary future world that is dominated by three perpetually warring totalitarian police states. The book’s hero, Winston Smith, is a minor party functionary in one of these states. His longing for truth and decency leads him to secretly rebel against the government. Smith has a love affair with a like-minded woman, but they are both arrested by the Thought Police. The ensuing imprisonment, torture, and reeducation of Smith are intended not merely to break him physically or make him submit but to root out his independent mental existence and his spiritual dignity.”

A major theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four is censorship, which is displayed especially in the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), where photographs are retouched and history is rewritten by eliminating “unpersons” of sources in public archives. Economic figures are grossly exaggerated or invented in the telescreens to indicate an ever-growing economy.

Furthermore, the government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects, classifying disapproved thoughts with the term “Thoughtcrime”.

More than sixty years after Nineteen Eighty-Four has first been published, the Internet has revolutionized fundamental rights like the “Freedom of Speech” as recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right to “Freedom of Information” as recognized by the World Summit on the Information Society.

Nevertheless, many countries like China, North Korea and Iran heavily censor the Internet. But also citizens of European countries are exposed to governments trying to regulate the Internet, often well-intentioned attempts to protect its citizens but disputable nonetheless.

In this blog I will examine Internet censorship in Europe as part of a university assignment for the subject “Internet Cultures and Governance”.

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