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Webster's Webwatch


October 2009


We live in a free country, don’t we?  You might think so, but think again, at least as far as the internet is concerned.  However, it’s not the government that is censoring us.  It’s our employers.

We all know about the dreadful way that all those foreigners try to exercise control of the Internet.  Think of the great Firewall of China – the national filtering system that the Chinese authorities impose on their people.  Even a blameless website like can’t be seen there, and the government does all it can to prevent sites critical of their policies from creeping through the filter.

Then there’s North Korea, where only a few thousand citizens are allowed any access to the internet at all, and even then what they can see is heavily controlled an monitored.  In Egypt, to use an internet café one must give up all sorts of personal information, so that they can see who’s been looking at what.  Saudi Arabia sends all its internet traffic through a central point where it is monitored and filtered, and if the appropriate committee decrees, those seeking filtered site are traced. 

Pakistan has banned access to websites critical of the government.  In The United Arab Emirates most Internet telephony services are blocked, presumably because they are harder to tap.  In Bahrain, the government requires all ISPs to use a filter operated solely by the Ministry of Information; only the Ministry knows what is being blocked and why.

None of this is new, of course; governments are always trying to stop their people finding out what is really going on.  Happily, some societies have outgrown the straitjacket, and credit their citizens with enough intelligence to make up their own minds.

The UK is one of those countries, I’m glad to say.  Our governmental control of the internet almost doesn’t exist.  They can find out what you’ve been up to, but they don’t stop you doing it. 

No, the depressing fact is that internet censorship in this country does not come from the state; it comes from private enterprise, that bastion of freedom, choice and self-determination.  If you work in any organisation of any size, you will find that the management uses its blind power over the computer system to enact censorship that would make the authorities in Beijing jealous. 

For example, many companies routinely block Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and internet based email system like Yahoo and Gmail (even China doesn’t go that far).  Often, they forbid the sites that sell things, like Amazon. 

The argument is that these are time wasting sites, and we should be getting on with our work.  So we should be, but don’t tell me that your employees can’t find a way to waste time without them. 

Worse, if you talk to a recent highflying graduate, they will tell you that Facebook, for example, is as much a part of their general communication with their contacts, business and personal, as their phone is.  To ban it is a huge barrier to their effectiveness.  It’s like blocking a phone number because there might be someone at the other end who will waste some of your employee’s time; it’s ridiculous.

That’s bad enough, but even worse is the holier than thou censoring of sites just because someone who has no philosophical training but is good at computers has decided that they must be bad for you.  It’s like asking the man who mends your washing machine to pick your clothes.  As a result, one sniff of the word “naked” or perhaps “uncensored” and the company system behaves like an over corseted Victorian maiden aunt, and forbids you to see the site.  

I am afraid this mess won’t improve much until the current crop twenty-somethings are in charge of corporate computer policies.  Most of those in charge at the moment just don’t understand the problem, because they don’t understand the internet.  And because they don’t understand it, they fear it, and so try to stop it impinging on their lives and businesses.  Just like the Chinese government, in fact.

This approach always fails, of course, and such companies will fade away in due course.  So they should; any form of censorship should bring with it the risk of retribution from those it is attempting to control.