The Western world was rightly concerned last year when China blocked its citizens’ access to Google, the Internet’s ubiquitous search engine. In addition to raising a hue and cry in the United States, a bevy of “hacktivists” scrambled to set up mirrored Google sites to thwart China’s effort. Now China no longer blocks Google outright: it’s just more selective in its censorship. If, in China, you type in “Falun Gong,” the name of a dissident Chinese religious group, your Google search yields virtually no links. Most of us would agree this is a misguided effort by the Chinese government to suppress information, right?But something similar is afoot in the United States. An accelerating trend to remove Internet links is being driven by two well-meaning but misguided pieces of legislation. The first, known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, says any Internet service provider can be sued and even shut down for linking to a site known to violate U.S. copyright laws. And the second, the recent legislation popularly known as the USA Patriot Act, makes it a crime to aid or abet terrorist organizations. Both laws are putting new pressures on the U.S. commitment to free speech.
Take the recent fracas at the University of California, San Diego. Last fall, the university’s administration tried to force a student group to delete from its Web page a link to the Web site of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a violent Marxist insurgency. University officials claimed that the link violated the USA Patriot Act by providing “material support or resources” to a group that has been placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Doesn’t the drive to remove links-even to potentially unpleasant information-smack of the tactic we revile when practiced by the Chinese government?
The First Amendment is still sufficiently robust to have convinced university officials to back off from the hyperlink brouhaha-at least for the moment. I’m sure we will see other efforts to delete hyperlinks to “terrorist” information. In the meantime, I’m even more worried about the insidious censorship resulting from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Consider, for instance, another Google-related censorship story. Last spring, Google removed links to Web pages critical of the Church of Scientology. Why? Because the creepy organization sent Google a letter of complaint, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and claiming that Google was offering links to Web pages that infringed the Scientologists’ copyrighted material. The Scientologists asserted that the search engine must either remove the links or face a court-ordered shutdown.