Internet censorship around the world

July 13, 2003
Singapore Democrats

This post is at least a year old. Some of the links in this post may no longer work correctly.

Charles A. Gimon

Given the drive in the United States to censor Internet communications, what are other countries doing to censor their citizens, or protect free speech in their bits of cyberspace?

The Internet is growing into all sorts of faraway corners of the globe. In many countries, the Internet is still so new that censorship isn’t an overt issue yet. In others, computer networking and e-mail aren’t on the same level as they are in North America, East Asia, Europe, or even Chile or Turkey. In Sri Lanka, for example, e-mail is delivered through a uucp network over regular phone lines. When e-mail needs to be delivered to a site outside Sri Lanka, it has to go over an expensive long-distance call from Colombo to Stanford University in the U.S. Users are heavily discouraged from sending long or “frivolous” e-mail messages.

Transferring any image, pornographic or not, would be a no-no. The cost keeps erotic digital images out of Sri Lanka, more than direct government interference.

Full Internet service has just opened to the public in Beijing, China. China Net is carrying a little over 1000 Usenet groups on its news server. A recent poster to Usenet from Beijing says that “some sensitive newsgroups are locked out”.

Likewise in Malaysia, newsgroups that carry discussions or images that are against the law in Malaysia are not carried. According to Mohamed b. Awang-Lah, administrator at, the government doesn’t actively filter communications. A check of posts in soc.culture.malaysia shows that discussion in that group, at least, can be pretty free-ranging and colorful. Nevertheless, the Acceptible Use Policy at Jaring, the main Malaysian Internet backbone, states that “members shall not use Jaring network for any activities not allowed under any Law of Malaysia”. Given that Malaysian censors are still deciding whether to allow the movie “Casper” into the country, the potential for censorship is high, but that potential hasn’t been fully used yet on the Internet.

Across the straits in Singapore, the government is much more active. Recently George Yeo, Minister for Information and Arts, said in a speech in Tokyo that “the act of censorship is symbolic and an affirmation of the values we hold as a community.” Government censors have tried to stop uuencoded binaries of any kind from coming into Singapore, rumors have circulated of access to certain overseas sites being blocked to users from Singapore, and officials have even mentioned the possibililty of the government suing its critic on the newsgroup soc.culture.singapore for libel or defamation. Anonymous remailers and fake addresses on Usenet posts can make tracking down the original author of an item impossible, but the intentions of the Singapore government are clear: virtual chewing gum can lead to a real-time caning.

In other countries with a past history of censorship, there appears to be little or no limit on Internet communications. Newsgroups in the* and* hierarchies get posts from Spain, Poland and South Africa.

In the English-speaking world, it’s a mixed bag. Legislation has been discussed in the United Kingdom that would give Internet providers ‘common carrier’ status–meaning that the site wouldn’t be responsible for the actions of its users. In Ireland, the main Internet backbone doesn’t provide the* newsgroups automatically, but it will on request, according to John Killane, admin at Cork Internet Services. In New Zealand, the pending Technology and Crimes bill would punish “every person…who casts, transmits, communicates, or recieves through any means, any objectionable image, or sound” regardless of whether they have knowledge that the item is objectionable or not. New Zealand providers have protested that the sheer cost of monitoring absolutely every bit of traffic going in and out of their sites would force them to shut down–effectively disconnecting New Zealand from the Net. And in Canada, information about the infamous Karla Homolka murder trial continues to be made available on the Internet, despite a total press ban by the judge presiding on the case. By routing messages through the United States and elsewhere, and by storing information outside Canada, Internet users have rendered the Canadian press ban powerless.
In Estonia, until very recently a part of the old Soviet Union, a new Constitution has broad guarantees of press freedom: “all persons shall have the right to freely circulate ideas, opinions, beliefs and other information by word, print, picture and other means…there shall be no censorship.” This covers Internet as well as all other means of communication; Internet users in Estonia are free to say and distribute whatever they want to. Obviously, they’re doing us in the United States one better.