The Week in Review

Among the events of the past week, the main issues have been focused on government restrictions of access to the Internet and access to information. Efforts by the state to restrict information were demonstrated by the actions of governments, actions which limited freedom of expression and access to information. The following comparative commentary analyzes the Internet restrictions imposed by governments in Burma and China.

Nearly two weeks ago the Burmese government decided to turn off Internet access during the pro-democracy protests. This impaired access to information for those within the region as well as those outside of the region trying to receive information about events within the state. What has recently been reported about this situation has been the effect of the Internet in the political realm. The Forbes article, titled “Myanmar’s Net begins to lift”, raises a key issue of the incorporation of the Internet as a communication tool within the state. 

While the Internet improves communication potential, the potential effect of increased communication among citizens is not favourable from the perspective of the government.  Mark Poster, in “Cyberdemocracy:  the Internet and the Public Sphere” [Available at http://www.hnet.uci.edu/mposter/writings/democ.html%5D, notes the emergence of decentralized technologies, a good example of which is the Internet. Due to its decentralized structure, the Internet is difficult to control; while a government may benefit from the technology, the technology is, quite literally, uncontrollable. 

Traditional means of authority exercised by the government do not necessarily translate to the realm of cyberspace. In an attempt to control communication and media, the Burmese government decided to prevent access to the Internet by removing the the Internet as a tool for communication.    

This week, the Chinese government has been prevalent in current events due to the consequences it imposes on Internet users who fail to comply with its regulations. The government is becoming more attuned to the patterns and online activities of its users and thus attempting to use such information in their censorship efforts, such as with cartoon Internet police. Thus, privacy rights and security online are not a priority for the government, effectively infringing the UN declared right of access to information.

The comparison of the Chinese and Burmese governments on Internet access further reveals two issues. The first is that each government strategically censors information online; the second issue arises with their different strategies.  Interestingly, China and Burma block access to information but each carries out this end by very different means.  Whereas China encourages self-censorship, Burma instead censors the communication technology in its entirety.  From the reports this week, China’s censorship strategies are intensifying.  The International Herald Tribune notes, in “China’s Internet controls tightened ahead of sensitive political congress”, that bloggers have had their blogs blocked and have subsequently decided to hold their internet service provider legally responsible; these sorts of tactics appear to be ongoing practices for the government.

Burma, on the other hand, experienced a short disruption in its communication technology which affected access to information; however, it does not seem as though the censorship tactics will continue for an extended period of time.The differing strategies calls into consideration the means by which governments restrict access to information.  One of  the means has included the use of commercial internet filtering software, known as censorware. 

The difficulty with this type of product arises in its skewed purpose; what was intended as a product to block particular sites to support Internet use has had its purpose altered.  While produced in the United States, the censorware products are exported to other states.  These ‘other states’ often use them as content filtering devices, blocking certain sites which prevents access to information.  Although the censorship tactics of Burma and China differ in their approaches and of internet censorship, the differences that accrue lead to the same outcome, in that the freedom of speech and freedom of expression are compromised.   

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