Walid Al-Saqaf



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Can Internet censorship of any particular content be justified under certain circumstances? Explain.

Live TED Conversation: Join TED Fellow Walid Al-Saqaf

Walid is a Yemeni media researcher and activist. He is the developer of alkasir censorship circumvention software used to help users, primarily in the Middle East, access censored content.

This conversation will open at 1:00PM EST on August 5th.

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    Aug 5 2011: I wish to note however that my work has been focusing on allowing citizens in the Arab world and Iran to access political content blocked by their repressive regimes.

    That is the focus of my work and it has been worthwhile because now in Syria, for example, activists are able to post revolution-related videos and stories on social networking websites that would have been inaccessible otherwise
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    Aug 5 2011: I'm not sure what I think about it.

    I certainly don't think there is any politics-related content that should be censored, as, in my point of view, in a very simplified idea, governments should work for their people and not the other way around.

    What could probably be regarded as material that could be censored is related to things that would maybe be considered inappropriate globaly. But I'm not very sure there is such kind of material. Even pedophilia, which is one of the most hideous things a human being is able of doing, might be socially accepted in cultures that are different to mine.
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      Aug 5 2011: You are right in that point. That brings us back to square one, which is 'what is that could be censored'. In fact, it takes us to the definition of censorship itself.
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      Aug 5 2011: I have looked into some of the studies concerned with censorship in general, and arrived to some important observations. In his book, Anatomy of censorship: why the censors have it wrong, A scholar, Harry White referred to censorship in a 1997 book as

      'suppression of certain material'

      but he fell short of providing a complete definition of the word. Instead, he pointed to a definition dilemma because what constituted objectionable content in one country or culture may have been perfectly acceptable in another.

      He described the problem of definition by noting that judgments to "what constitutes illicit expression vary over time and among jurisdictions" .
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        Aug 5 2011: That's an interesting description, indeed.

        To use the Wikileaks example, I don't really see hiding someone's name in order to preserve his/her health as censorship, although it could be seen as fitting White's concept.

        I think it should be considered as a distinct institution, which is much more similar to not making one's bank details available online. But I might be stretching too much qhat I call "minimum standards of privacyprotection" by thinking the same rule should apply to governmental documents.
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          Aug 5 2011: That is something worth examining. Classified government documents across the world are the responsibility of the government institutions themselves. If they do data protection right, there won't need to be a discussion about censorship of such content.
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    Aug 5 2011: My concern is not as much, for the censored content, as for the ones who decide what is to be censored and what not.
    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who shall guard the guards?) When someone has this kind of authority, he/she may take advantage of it according to his/her own beliefs and ideals and decide in our place what is good for us.
    This is the main reason I find censorship dangerous in all cases, except maybe for protecting innocent children from harmful material.

    I don't have a fixed opinion though. I am open to constructive arguments.

    Nice discussing with you Walid.
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      Aug 5 2011: Thanks for this contribution Dimitra,

      " I find censorship dangerous in all cases, except maybe for protecting innocent children from harmful material"

      This is a bold statement but also I like that you are open to constructive arguments. The problem with the censors is that they are humans and while they have biases and beliefs, they are obliged to do some censoring. So it is a dilemma indeed.
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    Aug 5 2011: I have worked in the last two years to try to find on what basis do certain regimes censor content. The most common answer I got was simply that they fear having people learn about certain ideas that could undermine their authority or put them in bad light.

    That is censorship that I have been actively fighting in Yemen and several Arab countries. It is censorship that is unacceptable in my view.
    • Aug 5 2011: So what is acceptable censorship?
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        Aug 5 2011: That is a question that could be answered based on the context, culture and time. The bottom line is that sometimes, the harm of letting some information out is much more than suppressing this information. For example, the Rwandan Genocide could have been less bloody if radio programs calling for violence and hatred could have been stopped.

        It is never a clear black and white issue.
    • Aug 5 2011: That's the true definition of censorship.
      Limiting the exposure of unknown information to hinder change.
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        Aug 5 2011: Interesting. But then there is one minor problem. How could you know whether the intent of the censor is to hinder change?
        • Aug 5 2011: Since this discussion is mainly philosophical, I'd just argue that anything you experience causes change. If it didn't there would be no need for censorship.
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      Aug 5 2011: Certainly, Walid, any censorship that serves a political agenda is wrong.

      As I said earlier, governments should work for the people, and trying to stop the spreading of ideas amongst the population (the very political censorship you bring to debate) should be treated as a crime against humanity, in my humble opinion.
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    Aug 4 2011: Certainly. There is plenty of media which is leaked through the internet every day. (Ever hear of WikiLeaks?)
    Believing that Internet censorship can be justified is synonymous with believing that censorship can be justified.
    Why should the medium through which censorship is applied make any difference?
  • Aug 5 2011: Walid, what is your take on Anonymous?
  • Aug 5 2011: I also have to agree with shaun on the wiki-leak type of information available. We are kidding ourselves if we think that, in this world of true and actual war-times and country fighting country, if we think that all of our governments and military actions should be out in the open. You put EVERY body at risk when we start leaking tactics et el....however...that is a close line there, considering our government does so much that should not be hidden; considering that we cannot always believe that everything that we don't know won't hurt us.
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      Aug 5 2011: Excellent point.

      That is why I think that censorship cannot be discussed without putting it into context. Therefore, I don't agree with the notion that all censorship is bad. Sometimes it is a trade-off, where censorship could end up being the lesser evil.
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      Aug 5 2011: Debi, what if governments started referring to other nations in internal "classified" material with the same protocol they do when discussing directly with another nation? I think there wouldn't be any need to have classified material if such happened.

      I think classified material is just something that shouts "We lie!" "We" being the government, and the receivers of such lies being their own people and other nations.

      It's nothing more than saying lies and deceit are part of the political game, and we not only allow it, we enforce it.

      I prefer to believe in a world of true and seriousness.
    • Aug 5 2011: Lets say however that instead of targeting governments and corporations, they target individual information, like where your children live, where you hide the extra key to your house or some secret physical vulnerability that could cause you instant death. How is it not the same for our military? There are innocent soldiers that could be harmed by the information leaked, yet they are not the ones responsible for the wrong doings of their superiors.
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        Aug 5 2011: I agrre completely, Anthony.

        What I find disgusting is that not even the superiors are responsible for their wrong doings. At least, not in a world where classified material is the rule, with public "sensible" information being the exception.
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    Aug 5 2011: I think something needs to be brought in this discussion: I've always admired the internet for its capacity to "self-regulate".

    Again, the example of child pornography fits here. Of course it can be found online, and it will always be able to find it. But in my opinion, child pornographers stay in the "shadowy alleys" of the internet not only because of the fear for "real life" punishment, but also because the internet community doesn't see it as an acceptable practice.

    So is there really any point in putting a lot of effort to stop the spread of child pornography online? What I mean is I don't think it has any real effect. A child abuser or a child pornography appreciator will search for their sexual needs (and will probably find it) with or without the censorship.
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      Aug 5 2011: I think I get your point.

      In relation to that, I find that users in countries that filter Intenet porn end up finding ways to access it any way. There is a saying in Arabic that goes
      الممنوع مرغوب
      meaning what is prohibited is always desired.

      So I would think that along with the short-term measures of removing such content online, there needs to be a long-term program to fight such phenomena on different levels, e.g., prosecution, rehabilitation, etc. because censorship alone is not enough.
    • Aug 5 2011: That is an interesting take. It makes me wonder to what degree an organization like Anonymous is helping or hindering. The online community is technically the world at this point so why should anyone take the regulation of its' practices into their hands?
  • Aug 5 2011: yes. i do not think that there is any circumstance under which heavy porn is justified....not only the use of it, but it's easy access to the young. http://www.ted.com/talks/zimchallenge.html gives just a little bit about the affect on young boys. I'm talking about its affect on all of the young, female, male; this is an animalistic behaviour that brings humans to lower then animal status. I won't even add 'in my opinion' because I have seen its surly work too much first hand, not only in family but in the wider world. It is degrading to not only women but our species in general (not counting the humorous yet not so far fetched idea that we, male/female are like two totally different species)
    i would also include this censorship with the extreme violence and gore of murder...it is vile and feeds the lower monsters to easily and, again, lowers us to that of even less then animals.
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      Aug 5 2011: Those are quite valid points.

      However, there are problems when defining the word 'heavy' and 'extreme' as there is no set standard for that and I bet you will not always find one scale to measure with.
  • Aug 5 2011: So Walid, for you, what are some examples of internet censorship being used for "good" or even practical reasons?
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      Aug 5 2011: Using software on the home-level to protect your children from accessing pornography is one good use perhaps. Other uses could be preventing content that could identify the addresses or locations of individuals. That is where censorship is useful to protect privacy of individuals.

      However, those are always context-based and should not be generalized.

      Where do you think censorship could be legitimate?
      • Aug 5 2011: I think in the UK there are actually laws forbidding public phone directories of private individuals. Only numbers for companies are available. This of course makes it very hard to track down someone, in case you've lost their number. In Sweden it is the opposite, you have to actively deny access from public phone records. Telemarketing would die as a profession if no public phone records were allowed. Though, I wonder if anyone would miss them. Same with "addressed direct marketing"; if they don't know where you live, they can't send it to you.
  • Aug 5 2011: I believe that everyone has the right to express their thoughts and ideas, through every channel of communication, internet, television, radio, press or even at gatherings. What i don't believe is that one has the right to expose another's personal life and no mater your political or theological beliefs you always have keep in mind that exposing certain affairs publicly may create more harm than good. Diplomacy teaches us that there are many ways to state a point, and maybe what some may call censorship others may think its a wiser form of preventing gratter evil.
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      Aug 5 2011: Well-said Diogo,

      That is where the clash can sometimes happen between advocates of freedom of expression and advocates of privacy. The case of Wikileaks is a good example. Ultimately, even Wikileaks had to practice censorship to its own content.
  • Aug 5 2011: At what point can one deem censorship justifiable? I believe there are many cases in which information or media could be deemed harmful in a quantifiable way, notably that which relates to children. In the case of child pornography, for example, one could argue that it's censorship is to protect the child involved and to discourage further abuse. However, how about in 200 years from now, when all of the children that were used for child porn are long dead, would it still be "wrong" to censor this information?
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      Aug 5 2011: Well it doesn't matter whether the children in those pedophile materials are dead or not. It is the basic notion of abuse of children that is agreed universally to be unethical and should be challenged.

      However, Internet censorship in the form of website or keyword filtering of such material has rarely been proven to be effective. But chasing down the owners and having them prosecuted would be much more viable.
      • Aug 5 2011: In Sweden there are people currently having problems with the law "censoring" material considered to be child porn, which isn't even depicting real children. Whenever art is considered to be anything but art, society needs to take a step back an reconsider its actions. The laws are there to protect real live children! Not about censoring comic books or any other form of artistic expression.
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          Aug 5 2011: Yes, the dilemma is that there is no single standard for everything. That is why I agree with the Ryan Marin's comment below that sometimes one needs to take things on a case-by-case basis.
      • Aug 5 2011: So explain how the audio recordings of Jonestown, where you can hear hundreds of infants dying, can be played on the history channel, but child pornography (which is at worst equally as bad) is banned.
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          Aug 5 2011: Maybe it is the sexual element.
        • Aug 5 2011: I wouldn't say that the Jonestown audio is as bad as child porn. I doubt you could find more than two people who could listen to that audio and find satisfaction that makes them want to repeat the process. Child porn serves a niche market, provides them temporary satisfaction to an urge, an helps them cope with repeating the behavior.
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          Aug 5 2011: I agree with Ryan on this. Child porn is an act that abuses innocent children in return of money. So it is a business, albeit sick one, for some people.
    • Aug 5 2011: The censorship of child pornography has more to do with the suppression of a sexual trait than helping protect the victims who have already been abused. It is a means of keeping others from viewing naked children and trying to repeat the process and creating new victims. So yes, child porn is still wrong no matter where the victims are.
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        Aug 5 2011: Indeed. Censorship can have many forms. And taking down a server full of pedophile content is legitimate censorship in my view.

        But there are occasions when website filtering that is supposed to be done to prevent accessing such material becomes abused and expands to be used to block political content. That is what happens in some Arab countries.
      • Aug 5 2011: Okay, but under those guidelines, how can we justify rape fantasy pornography or some violent video games?
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          Aug 5 2011: Interesting. But then again, we need to go back to the context. That is why it is extremely difficult to establish standard guidelines for censorship
      • Aug 5 2011: But the action performed at Johnstown is unarguably worse, so by your definition, things are censored not by the severity of moral corruption, but by combination of abusive behavior and the quantity of people who would derive pleasure or be tempted to recreate what they see? What if videos of people being killed were responsible for every school shooting? Under your premise, that too should be censored. However, they are not (at least, it's not illegal to view).
        • Aug 5 2011: Though, violent computer games are censored.
  • Aug 5 2011: Even outing known, perhaps even convicted pedophiles and murderers is questionable.
    People receiving/viewing this information have severe problems knowing what to do with this knowledge. They immediately become victims of their own prejudices.
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      Aug 5 2011: That's a legal problem to solve. Indeed, I never thought about it. What if someone mistakenly sends pedophile material to your email or stores it through a virus on your computer? Later on, if your device is discovered with this material, you become a victim and could be prosecuted.
      • Aug 5 2011: That is yet another problem with the "burden of evidence".
        How can I ever prove that material was not put there by someone else? That is not up to me!

        I so enjoyed reading the book "Svenska hackare" by Daniel Goldberg & Linus Larsson. Time and time again they present cases where other people's computer systems are used just as stepping stones onto the next target. Another example would be that Microsoft and the US gov and several other are working extremely hard battling among other things the worm STUXNET, which apparently has infected hundreds of thousands of computers around the world.

        Can you be sure none of your systems are affected?

        In other places, screenshots of someone's IP address were accepted as evidence in some cases of copyright infringement.
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          Aug 5 2011: Indeed. Those difficult questions are still on the table with no real answer. Some people have become so paranoid that they are constantly reformatting their hard disks and re-installing their operating systems. It is really not the answer though.
  • Aug 5 2011: Well we just recently had the issue of the man who was deemed responsible for finding Osama bin Laden be outed because of Photobucket. I'd say that when someone's personal health is being risked by having information accessible by everyone via the internet that data should be censored in some way. The difficult thing is deciding where that line is drawn. I think it is easy to speak in absolutes in theory but the truth is that some things need to be decided on a case by case basis.
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      Aug 5 2011: I believe you are absolutely right Ryan,

      There is a problem when dealing with censorship in absolute terms. It is rather impossible to really get an absolute bullet-proof system that would safe-guard freedom and democracy and at the same time protect privacy and other issues. So it is a dilemma!

      And the Photobucket case is a good example.
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      Aug 5 2011: What I find interesting in your note also is that privacy is a human right just as access to information, and there are occasions where the two might clash.

      But the overwhelming cases of Internet censorship are to do with censoring of dissident political content, something practiced widely by China, Iran, Syria and other oppressive regimes.
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    Aug 5 2011: One more thing about Wikileaks. Perhaps Wikileaks did censor certain content in their reports, for example, the names of certain CIA agents or collaborators out of fearing for their life. That is a legitimate form of censorship in my view because it may put other people in harm's way. Furthermore, censoring their names is not going to do much damage to the objective of the report itself, unless they are important persons.
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    Aug 5 2011: First of all, let me thank TED for this opportunity and to engage with other TEDsters in the hot topic of Internet censorship, or censorship for that matter.

    First in response to Sean Miller,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Let me first say that I agree that censorship in essence is the same in different mediums, but if we look into Internet censorship in particular has its own characteristics as it is much easier to censor and do it without transparency. That is often done in countries ruled by repressive regimes such as China, Syria, etc.

    But I would love to have you and others elaborate on what exactly needs to be censored online and why.