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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 March 2007, 08:59 GMT
How governments censor the web
YouTube page
The YouTube clip reportedly dubbed Ataturk and Turks homosexuals
By blocking the popular YouTube website, Turkey has joined the list of countries taking steps to control what their populations can see on the internet.

How far will governments go to censor web content, and how do they do it?

YouTube was blocked by a court order in Turkey after clips were posted that, prosecutors said, insulted the memory of the nation's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Turkish visitors to the site are now greeted with a message in English and Turkish reading "Access to www.youtube.com site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/384 dated 06.03.2007 of Istanbul First Criminal Peace Court".

But controlling what people can and cannot see on the internet has become a prime interest of many of the world's more authoritarian regimes.

"Five or six years ago, very few countries controlled the internet," says Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"Very few dictators understood that they had to control the web as they did traditional media. Unfortunately, now, web censorship is spreading around the world."

Flat denial

Over a decade after the internet really began to take off, most countries' leaders recognise the desirability of being online, says Daniel Whitener of the World Wide Web consortium.

"They recognise it, if nothing else, as a critical avenue for commerce," he explains.

Internet cafe in Beijing

"What comes along with that commercial avenue though is access to quite a bit of information that can be quite threatening to authoritarian regimes."

And the ways that different countries have attempted to combat this threat are numerous.

In North Korea only selected government officials get access to the net and then on connections rented from China. It does not even have its own national net domain, .nk.

In Turkmenistan, access is denied to almost everyone. And in many other countries, access is becoming more difficult as governments recognise the potential influence of the internet.

In Burma, for example, computers in internet cafes automatically take a screen capture every five minutes to monitor what users are viewing.

In January this year Iran enacted a new law requiring bloggers to register their sites with the authorities.

But it is China which has one of the most sophisticated and ambitious internet censorship programmes.

The country's ruling Communist party was quick to latch on to the internet's potential - and was focusing on it at around the same time as Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Great firewall of China

China aims to make the internet available to everyone in the country - potentially doubling today's global figure of one billion regular users - but because of recent history, it also intends to strictly govern what can and cannot be seen.

Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman
Soliman's sentence was condemned by human rights groups
"After Tiananmen in 1989, the government convened a whole range of crisis meetings - and in one of those meetings, put forward a plan for using the internet for control of China's government administration," says Peter Lovelock of the Telecommunications Research Project at the University of Hong Kong.

"That meant never letting the country roll out of control like it had at Tiananmen. They started building these huge internet backbones then and there... the Chinese authorities said, 'we are going to put everybody on the internet - and on our terms'."

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on building what is known as the Great Firewall Of China - a network of state-licensed internet access providers, and around 30,000 internet police censors who filter sites between China and the rest of the world.

The BBC News website, for example, continues to be blocked in China.

But Western companies have been accused of collaborating with the Chinese authorities in order to gain access to China's rapidly-growing market - Microsoft censors Chinese blogs, while Google has set up its own version of its site for the Chinese market, on which it blocks politically-sensitive terms in agreement with conditions set by Beijing.

"The major corporations are going to self-censor - they are not going to do anything which will bring them to the attention of the government for the way in which they deploy their internet access," Mr Lovelock adds.

Blogging power

Despite the risks, however, there are nearly 20 million bloggers in China - up from just 2,000 at the end of 2002.

Although Beijing views most bloggers as harmless, those who called for free elections have received long jail sentences; China jails more dissident bloggers than any other country.

RSF last year released a report saying net users have also been jailed in Egypt, Iran, Libya, the Maldives, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam.

Mr Pain highlighted in particular the case of Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman, sentenced to four years in prison after being accused of insulting Islam on his blog and criticising president Hosni Mubarak.

"He was an easy target," said Mr Pain.

"But it shows that now, bloggers have a real power and influence over politics."

Net censorship spreads worldwide
04 May 06 |  Technology
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12 Apr 06 |  Business
Net firms criticised over China
15 Feb 06 |  Technology

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