KU News Release

Jan. 13, 2011
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855

Researcher maps extent of Internet censorship worldwide

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LAWRENCE — Around the globe, many of the 1.9 billion people using the Internet are restricted by national governments when they try to access open information. Governments block websites, monitor chat rooms and harass users of cyber cafes, among other limitations of freedom online.

Now, Barney Warf, professor of geography at the University of Kansas, has published a definitive study of the geography of Internet censorship.

Warf’s findings appeared in the December issue of GeoJournal.

“The paper is an examination of geographic differences in the level of severity of censorship and the scope of censorship around the world,” said the KU researcher.

Warf cited Myanmar, Iran and North Korea as among the most severe cases of governments that censor people’s access to the Web.

“The degree of censorship is closely related to the degree of globalization of different countries,” Warf said. “Typically countries that have lots of intersection with the world economy have less censorship than countries that are hermetically sealed off from the world economy.”

Warf said that many nations that once censored Internet access now have relaxed restrictions influenced by international trade and communication. He cited examples such as Singapore, South Korea and Bahrain.

“The great exception to that pattern in China, which is rapidly globalizing by trying to censor the Internet simultaneously,” said Warf. “My guess is that the Chinese can’t have it both ways — eventually they’re going to have to relent on this issue.”

Warf points to China’s so-called “Great Firewall” that blocks access to thousands of websites the government deems dangerous to its own interest.

“China is widely recognized as practicing some of the most severe forms of Internet censorship in the world. Given the size of the population of Chinese ‘netizens,’ or Internet users, that’s a particular concern for people who are worried about civil liberties.”

According to Warf, the real reasons behind Internet censorship are often different than the ones offered by governments.

“The ostensible reasons for Internet censorship typically include things like protecting public morality from things like pornography or Internet gambling,” said the KU researcher. “In Muslim countries, it’s protecting the public from anti-Muslim sentiment — in Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to defame the House of Saud, for example. But the real reasons have little to do with that. It’s typically a government’s attempt to repress freedom of speech. Many governments are terrified of the alternative voices that the Internet offers.”

Warf says “national security” is another supposed reason given for censorship of online activity, although curbing civil liberties is almost always the true motive.

Yet, even with restrictions on many users of the Internet around the world, Warf sees the Web as a catalyst for freedom.

“By and large, the growth of the Internet has given voice to many people who otherwise would have remained invisible,” he said. “The Internet is typically very low in cost to access. Things like blogs have changed much of the political sphere. The Internet has helped to widen the domain of public discourse, allowing for many more people to voice their opinions online and be critical of their governments in ways that would have been unimaginable if they only had access to print media or television.”

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