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Alternative Culture Articles

August 25, 2000

Censorship on the Web
by Royce Carlson

The U.S. government has not yet stepped in to control content on the Internet but censorship is still rearing its ugly head. The corporate control of access to information is already beginning to restrict what we will see on the World Wide Web. The government doesnít have to do anything.

The major search engines and directories are run by private companies and ones beholden only to stockholders. These corporations can legally control the content of their sites. They can decide what sites they will link to. It is their right by law in the U.S. This poses a problem regarding access to information on the Internet.

Although censorship is not legislated by government, many large portals have anti-pornography rules and will not list sites that obviously promote illegal activities. Pornography is popular enough that people who want it will easily be able to find it. (It finds them a lot of the time!) Illegal activities are another matter.

Here at Zenzibar Alternative Culture we recently received a letter from one of the large search engines claiming they will "no longer link to sites that promote the recreational ingestion of mind-altering substances." They are doing this by not recognizing drug keywords. Since keywords are the words you type into the search box, this means that, through this site, you will not be able to access any information about mescaline or magic mushrooms, for example.

This means that they are restricting access to sites about the psycho-active substances that shamans use legally in their countries. They are restricting access to sites that are organizing legal political action to change drug laws and they are restricting access to historical information about other cultures where these substances are legal. The sites that promote drug-use, illegal acts, pornography, etc. are still out there on the web. They are not restricted from posting their sites on the Web. Itís just that, without links to them, almost no one will find them.

This is de facto cultural and political censorship. Where will it go from here? Will the search engines band together to toe some conservative political line in allowing us access to information? I hope not. The actions of a bunch of individual major portal sites under pressure from governments and/or right wing religious groups to not link to sites that hold opposing viewpoints results in broad-based censorship which undermines our freedoms.

Itís a very tricky issue, however. For example, Zenzibar itself has a policy regarding the listing of pornography. It is our legal right. We also have the right to not list mainstream stuff. We, as a niche portal, serve a narrow market, the community of people interested in alternatives to western mainstream culture. It would be unrealistic to make it illegal to focus on a narrow market due to potential laws that restrict restrictions. Every portal canít be forced to be everything to everybody.

Better than pressuring government to make laws that prohibit private censorship, I believe the better action is to directly act against individual corporations that are heading down the censorship road by creating negative publicity for them. If their revenues drop, they will change their tune. Corporations are much more sensitive to negative publicity than governments are. Even a small number of very vocal activists can change the course of corporations.

I am giving the portal that wrote me the letter mentioned above a chance to rethink their recent policy change before I publish their name and start a campaign against them. I responded to their letter in much the same tone as this article. If they realize the error of their ways then no harm is done. I also believe the chances of this happening are near zero. Updates of this issue will be published here at Zenzibar. We all must take a stand against the abuses of corporate power.

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Royce Carlson