How Governments Control the Internet

How Governments Control the Internet

When the use of the Internet boomed in the 1990s, a set of problems led the US government to consider and eventually impose online regulations. During the 1920s, amateur radio hobbyists transmitted frequencies in enormous numbers, clogging the airwaves and interfering with one another. Broadcasts became a threat to the safety of maritime practices, a burden on naval communications, and created a generally chaotic environment that needed some organization. The sinking of the Titanic catalyzed congressional legislation regulating the ether. For Internet, that catalyst was pornography.

In 1996, Congress approved the Communications Decency Act (CDA), or Title V of the Telecommunications Act. The CDA sought to regulate the proliferation of indecent and obscene material spreading throughout the Internet, arguing that sexual communications and images were produced in “a manner available to a person under 18 years of age.” The bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, criminalized the act of displaying indecent material available to minors. Just one year later, however, the Supreme Court would rule this legislation unlawful for its violation of the First Amendment, a victory for cyberlibertarians weary of government encroachment on their new creation. With freedom of speech upheld even on the open source Internet, cyber enthusiasts believed that regulation of the Internet would be impossible. Cyberspace would, in their eyes, remain free.

But while the judicial branch may have set the government’s regulatory ambitions back, the court’s decision certainly did not put an end to their attempt to rule the net. As the Internet grew and began to transform all sectors of society, the government became more eager to have some control. And this desire was not derived from some malevolent intent. As businesses realized the economic potential of Internet-based transactions, both consumers and producers wanted some insurance on the web. While cyberspace may be impossible to control entirely, the government could certainly impose some regulatory policies to legitimize online commerce. One way to look at it, as Timothy Wu brilliantly describes in Who Controls the Internet?, is that if the United States controlled Wal-Mart, Macy’s and Sears, that still would not eliminate the existence of counterfeit goods. Companies like Rolex and Burberry lose profits every year because of these illegal markets. But that does not make regulatory laws imposed by the government useless. These initiatives do not need to be completely effective, but must rather be adequately effective. Laws need to raise the costs of illegal activities to a point that limits it to an acceptable level.

Governments around the world would adapt to these new conditions by pursuing regulations that pressured Internet intermediaries. The following are international examples of five different approaches to online regulation, but all apply to the US approach as well. These examples are extracted from Timothy Wu’s work. Transport Services, also known as Internet Service Providers (ISPs), were the first intermediary targeted by governments. These companies, such as Comcast, Verizon and Cox, own the physical network that citizens pay for in order to access the Internet. In 1995, German officials indicted the manager of Compuserve Deutschland for failing to prevent child pornography on the Internet, even though most of the images originated from outside the state. In 2001, the British government threatened to criminally prosecute ISPs for the distribution of illegal adoption sites. Most states also have laws that require local ISPs to screen out illegal content when they are made aware of its existence.

Information engines, such as Google, Bing and Yahoo, make up the second intermediary targeted by governments. Much of the material accessed on the Internet is done through search engines. When governments want to remove certain content, these companies are an obvious place to start. Google receives about thirty letters per month from the United States insisting that pages be removed from its engine for various copyright or trademark violations. In 2002, Google in France and Germany removed more than 100 websites that concerned Nazism, hate speech, white supremacy, and other related topics.

Financial services, such as Visa, MasterCard and AmEx, represent the third intermediary pressured by governments. Online commerce presented a challenge to existing state tax and age requirement laws on alcohol and cigarettes. Consumers purchased large quantities of cigarettes from companies online that were based in Indian reservations, and could thus sell their products tax-free. In fact in 2004, online cigarettes were a $1 billion industry. But when the government cracked down on the evasion of state taxes, officials didn’t go after individuals, vendors, ISPs, or search engines. Instead, they pressured Visa and similar financial services to stop accepting tax-evading transactions.

The fourth way governments regulate online activity is through the Domain Name System, or the procedure by which websites obtain their URL addresses. In 2003, the US Justice Department began cracking down on the online sale of drug paraphernalia. Officials obtained the domain names themselves, and placed a statement on the website that stated “the website you are attempting to visit has been restrained by the United States District Court.” Officials used the same procedure to shut down the popular ATDHE.net website that streamed live sports games, violating copyright laws.

The final approach to regulating online activity is the targeting of individuals. Tracking down specific computers that watch child pornography, download music illegally, or sell drug paraphernalia is an enormous undertaking. However, US government officials have arrested citizens for illegal online activity. In 2003, mostly as a publicity stunt, officials arrested a 12-year-old girl from New York for illegally downloading over 1,000 songs to her computer. Each song carried a maximum penalty of $150,000. The arrest demonstrated to citizens that the US government was serious about eliminating music sharing.

So by pressuring ISPs, search engines, financial services, domain name systems, and individuals, governments adapted to the new cyber infrastructure and found ways to control and regulate the medium. Just as they did with the radio, the United States government grew with the Internet and organized the chaotic conditions in the cyber world. But the same mentality that led the US government to regulate the Internet has enabled other regimes to fully control it. The early concept that the Worldwide Web was a borderless entity did not uphold the narrative of the 21st century’s first decade.

The following websites are blocked by the Chinese government due to the threat they pose to the People’s Republic: Sex.com; The US Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts; GALA (Gay and Lesbian Acceptance); Depression Reality: Information and Support; The University of Michigan Health System. The same methods that allow the French and Germans to block “Nazi memorabilia” from local search engines also enable the Chinese to eliminate “Taiwanese independence” from their servers. And while in the United States government officials pressure ISPs to block certain content, in China the state already owns all service providers to begin with.

In short, the Internet can and has been controlled. As the technology develops, it is important to acknowledge its relationship with regimes around the world.