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Geo-location Technologies and Sovereign Power to Censor

Geo-location tools provide the technology to censor, but those in power have the responsibility to fight for uncensored access to the Internet for all.

On April 10, 2000, La Ligue Contre Le Racisme Et L’Antisemitisme (LICRA) brought suit against Yahoo! Inc. in the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris for making Nazi memorabilia available for purchase in France.1 After proceedings, the French court ordered Yahoo! to  “take all necessary measures to dissuade and render impossible any access [from French territory] via Yahoo.com to the Nazi artifact auction service and to any other site or service that may be construed as constituting an apology for Nazism or a contesting of Nazi crimes.”2

In 2000, blocking material on the Internet from a particular geographic area was not only unheard of, it was believed to be impossible…Today, software and hardware unavailable a decade ago make geo-location services not only possible but affordable to most companies.
In 2000, blocking material on the Internet from a particular geographic area was not only unheard of, it was believed to be impossible. In response to the French court’s ruling, Yahoo! brought suit in the Northern District of California, moving the court to hold the French court’s order unenforceable.3

In making its determination, the district court relied upon experts to establish whether it was possible to block content from only French users. One of these experts was “Vinton Cerf, a 1997 recipient of the United States National Medal of Technology for co-designing the architecture of the Internet”.4 Cerf “disavowed relying on users’ self-identification at all, concluding that ‘it does not appear to be very feasible to rely on discovering the geographic locations of users for purposes of imposing filtering of the kind described in the [French] Court Order.’”5 Thus, the California court ruled the French order was unenforceable because the only way for Yahoo! to comply with the French order was to block content from all users, thereby blocking content from American users, which would chill free speech and violate the First Amendment.6

Today, software and hardware unavailable a decade ago make geo-location services not only possible but affordable to most companies. Several United States courts have suggested that geo-location technologies are now “accurate enough for legal purposes,”7 given that accuracy at the country level is greater than 97%.8 Thus, if brought today, the court would likely compel Yahoo! to censor material from French users in accordance with the French Court’s order.

In 2005, Google inadvertently got involved in world politics when it chose to comply with China’s request that Google censor the search results it provided to mainland China users via google.cn.9 However, in 2010, in response to cyberattacks that were identified as coming from mainland China, and due to one of the Google founder’s “experience growing up under a totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union,” Google announced that it could no longer take part in censoring the Internet.10 Instead, Google redirected google.cn users to google.hk. This action prompted China to block google.hk from its citizens, thereby censoring a huge gateway to the Internet.11

Iran, North Korea, and Cuba also censor their citizens’ access to the Internet.12 In Iran, the government already blocks “[m]ost Western social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter…as well as political opposition and sexually explicit websites.”13 Internet censorship may seem like an insignificant issue, but during the Arab Spring, “[f]or activists as well as everyday people, Facebook became an indispensable resource for tracking the minute-by-minute development of the situation.”14

We must actively enforce an uncensored version of the Internet abroad as the great equalizer, not step aside and permit other countries to censor the Internet as they see fit.
In June of 2011, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton released a statement in response to Syria’s shutdown of the Internet. She condemned the shutdown, citing the White House’s International Strategy for Cyberspace which dictates that “[s]tates should not arbitrarily deprive or disrupt individuals’ access to the Internet or other networked technologies.”15

Perhaps the newest human right should be access to the Internet, but not just the censored Internet which a specific sovereign permits you to see. Given that United States courts have already ruled that Internet censorship in America is subject to strict scrutiny, we must actively enforce an uncensored version of the Internet abroad as the great equalizer, not step aside and permit other countries to censor the Internet as they see fit.16

As recently as last December, Google wielded its power in support of such an uncensored Internet. In a statement regarding the U.S.’s refusal to sign the UN Telecom Treaty, Google responded “[w]hat is clear from the ITU meeting in Dubai is that many governments want to increase regulation and censorship of the Internet,…[w]e stand with the countries who refuse to sign this treaty and also with the millions of voices who have joined us to support a free and open web.”17

 


[1] Yahoo! Inc. v. La Ligue Contre Le Racisme Et L’Antisemitisme, 433 F.3d 1199, 1202 (9th Cir. 2006).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 1246.

[5] Id. at 1246-47.

[6] Id. at 1201.

[7] Dan Jerker B. Svantesson, Geo-location Technologies and Other Means of Placing Borders on the ‘Borderless’ Internet, 23 J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 101, 101-02 n.1 (2004).

[8] Kevin F. King, Personal Jurisdiction, Internet Commerce, and Privacy: The Pervasive Legal Consequences of Modern Geolocation Technologies, 21 Alb. L.J. Sci. & Tech. 61, 70 (2011).

[9] Craig Kanalley, Google China News: TIMELINE Of Events (2002 To 2010), Huffington Post (May 22, 2010), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/22/google-china-news-timelin_n_508695.html#s61671&title=Jan_2006_Launch.

[10] Bianca Bosker, Google Shuts Down China Search, Redirects Users To Hong Kong (UPDATED), Huffington Post (May 25, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/22/google-leaves-china-googl_n_508639.html.

[11] Id.

[12] Internet censorship, restrictions around the globe, Associated Press (Dec. 14, 2012), http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2012/12/14/internet-censorship-restrictions-around-globe/#ixzz2Kp78WMxv.

[13] Id.

[14] Alexis C. Madrigal, The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks, The Atlantic (Jan, 24, 2011), http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/01/the-inside-story-of-how-facebook-responded-to-tunisian-hacks/70044/.

[15] Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. Sec’y of State, Shutdown of the Internet in Syria (June 4, 2011) in http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/06/165001.htm.

[16] Mainstream Loudoun v. Bd. of Trustees of Loudoun County Library, 24 F. Supp. 2d 552, 570 (E.D. Va. 1998)

[17] Amy Thomson, UN Telecom Treaty Approved Amid U.S. Web-Censorship Concerns, Bloomberg (Date?) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-13/u-s-and-u-k-refuse-to-sign-un-agreement-on-telecommunications.html.