Censoring the Internet takes many forms, including censorship of opinions (Vietnam, Saudi Arabia); censorship of specific websites or ISPs (Australia, Pakistan, Russia); censorship of specific information (China, Germany); demanding information be taken down (France, Singapore); demanding users’ IP addresses (more than 50 countries); and erecting regulatory barriers to cross-border information flow (Brunei and Vietnam). More drastically, others including Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia have considered building national computer networks that would tightly control or even sever connections to the global Internet.
The ongoing controversy surrounding former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden makes for headline-grabbing news, but obscures these broader global challenges confronting the world’s Internet infrastructure.
The Internet facilitates communication, commerce, and trade and is an integral part of modern life. The global repercussions of censorship are severe. Regulations that constrict the flow of information not only create disparities among people’s access to knowledge, but also have a negative effect on the shape, architecture, safety, and resilience of the Internet.
In 2012, for example, two proposals in the US Congress to allow filtering of the Domain Name System, or DNS, which would enable the government to require US companies to block access to certain websites that were deemed a significant risk to cybersecurity.
Moreover, restrictive and discriminatory operating rules complicate trade and slow global national economic growth.The Internet economy accounted for 4.7 percent of US gross domestic product in 2010, or $68.2 billion, and is projected to rise to 5.4 percent of GDP in 2016. The United States captures more than 30 percent of global Internet revenues and more than 40 percent of net income. Filtering, blocking, and other limitations on data flow make it more difficult for companies of all sizes to reach customers, provide services, or share critical information globally.
There are many possible approaches the US could pursue to address this issue, but one of the most promising is mandating that all future trade agreements should include the goal of fostering the free flow of information and data across national borders while protecting intellectual property and developing an interoperable global regulatory framework for respecting the privacy rights of individuals. Trade agreements in the past have addressed the free flow of goods, piracy, and human rights. The trade agreements of the future should be no different, and some already address these issues.