Piracy Politics Fuel Internet Censorship

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Internet censorship is a hot topic in 2011, but also one that reveals the disturbing double-standards of politicians and governments around the world. This week U.S. Senator Dick Durbin sent China's largest search engine a letter asking them to stop censoring their search results. A noble attempt, but at the same time U.S. politicians are encouraging Google to censor piracy related terms from their search results.

durbinInternet Censorship can be a confusing topic for politicians. In the U.S. most politicians have openly spoken out against rampant political censorship in countries like China, but at the same time on their home soil they are supporting censorship initiatives for economic motives.

As part of their ongoing effort to tackle online piracy, the House of Representatives organized a hearing last month titled “Promoting Investment and Protecting Commerce Online: Legitimate Sites v. Parasites, Part II.” The main topic on the agenda was Google and why the company doesn’t do more to ensure that infringing materials aren’t indexed.

Earlier this year we discovered that following pressure from the entertainment industry, Google had already taken steps towards censoring their search results for this very reason. The result was that legitimate products of legitimate U.S. based companies (e.g. uTorrent from BitTorrent Inc.) are now actively censored from some of Google’s services. Let’s call it economic censorship.

Google’s move was applauded by many politicians who subsequently cheered the search giant on to take it up a notch. During the House hearing last month the big question appeared to be why Google hasn’t ended piracy yet. Some clever search keyword filters could help there, some argued. Indeed, just look at the torrent site isoHunt which was ordered by a U.S. court to censor its search engine based on a list of keywords provided by the MPAA.

Yes, isoHunt’s filter also makes some legitimate content inaccessible, but that’s just considered collateral damage. The overall agreement was that censorship is needed to solve online piracy.

This idea is also nested in some of the more recent legislative proposals in the U.S. The COICA bill for example, that would grant US authorities the power to seize (thus censor) domains that are deemed by the authorities to facilitate copyright infringement. COICA was introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and supported by 18 other Senators including Sen. Dick Durbin.

Again, with COICA it seems that censorship is not really seen as a major roadblock for prominent politicians. To some, economic censorship appears to be a must in order to protect corporate interests. The human rights and constitutional issues that may be violated in the process are reduced to collateral damage.

Considering the above it’s very interesting to see that Senator Durbin, who supported the COICA anti-piracy bill, has this week voiced his concerns about Internet censorship taking place in China. Yesterday Durbin published a letter he wrote to the Chinese search giant Baidu. In his letter the Senator voices his concerns over Baidu’s censorship efforts and asked the company to take “immediate steps” to stop them.

“I recently returned from a Congressional delegation to China. I decided to personally verify the reports about Baidu’s censorship. During my trip, I accessed Baidu’s homepage and attempted to search for a number of terms. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that Baidu heavily censors its search results,” Durbin writes.

“As a member of the U.S. Congress, I am especially concerned about Baidu’s internet censorship because of your company’s extensive business dealings in the United States. Baidu has been listed on NASDAQ since 2005. I understand that two of Baidu’s five directors are American and that American institutions are significant investors in Baidu,” the senator adds.

So there we have it, censorship is a problem, but only if it suits the interests of the people advocating against it. This is often the case in politics of course. Many U.S. politicians don’t see any problems with Google censoring (possible) copyright infringement related terms, but if they or another search engine do the same with political terms then they change their tune.

Censorship is censorship, but many western politicians seem to make a clear distinction between political and economic Internet censorship. Hypocrisy?


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