Unblocking news on the Internet

Jonathan Zittrain

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: So far during the nearly two weeks of the Beijing Olympics, human rights groups say there have been 77 applications made for permits to hold protests. No of those protests have actually happened yet. And even applying can get you into trouble. A pair of Beijing women, 77 and 79 years old, have been sentenced to a year of re-education through labor just for putting through the paperwork protest. Commentator Jonathan Zittrain agrees censorship is a problem in places like China, but there are things the censor-ees can do about it.


Jonathan Zittrain: The 2008 Olympics has brought renewed attention to Internet censorship in China. Web sites concerning topics like Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen are frequently blocked , and so too are more obscure religious and health sites, and wild cards like MIT's home page.

As journalists found out upon arrival in Beijing, news sites are also common targets. Time magazine, the BBC and the Voice of America have all been blocked in China.

There are ways to circumvent this filtering for those willing to make the effort, but the overall system works well enough. Just think how quickly you'll give up on a Web site and try another if it merely takes a long time to load, much less if it never appears.

It's possible that Western news organizations consider it a badge of honor to be filtered in China and elsewhere. Or they might want to shape the news they distribute to avoid censorship. But they should think it fundamental to their mission to ensure that their unadulterated work reaches all those who wish to see it. And they need to do a better job meeting their would-be audiences halfway.

Accepting censorship might be necessary when delivery trucks, broadcast towers and other in-country support mechanisms are needed to get newspapers or radio programs or television shows to willing consumers. For example, in 2002, the Economist agreed to withhold its weekly edition from Thailand after the government objected to an article about the future of the country's monarchy. In 2000, Newsweek didn't even realize at first that Bangladesh had banned and confiscated its print run because of the magazine's article about women and Islam.

But for overseas institutions that publish online, this doesn't have to be. News publishers could develop and use peer-to-peer networks and other digital means to get their word out around the firewalls. The same technologies that allow for the unauthorized sharing of Britney Spears singles can also make news more available in places where it can compete with government propaganda. The wrath news organizations might suffer from authoritarian regimes could be offset by loyalty from citizens who come to appreciate news from outside the bubble. And they'll remember, after liberalization makes technological workarounds unnecessary, who struggled to communicate with them and who did not.

Ryssdal: Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law at Harvard University. His latest book is called "The Future of the Internet . . . And How to Stop It."

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