Internet Control

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State of the Internet in 2010 - Infographic[1]

Internet Control refers to third-party attempts and abilities to control the flow of information on the Internet. This is a modification by SI 410 on Feb 11th, 2021. This is a really well written page. We're not looking to mess this up. Third-parties include any party that attempts to or has the ability to control and/or block certain information on the Internet. This can include state and federal governments, as well as other non-governmental parties such as corporations like Internet service providers (ISP). Internet control is a controversial topic because the Internet is driven by individual groups, individual people, private companies, and governments. The Internet exists all over the world; it does not exist under the authority of one particular government, but it can be accessed from virtually any country in the world.

At the highest level, the Internet is a collection of computers that have been setup to allow network connections via an agreed upon protocol, which is called the Internet Protocol (IP). Modern web browsers use the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) or the secure version, HTTP Secure (HTTPS). These protocols use IP for the transfer of web pages. Web browsers know how to use this protocol, and users can therefore use a web browser to connect to various websites, which represent those computers that have been setup to receive these kinds of HTTP and HTTPS connections. Because of the virtual nature of Internet browsing, it is difficult for any governing body to control what can and cannot be accessed or displayed on the Internet. Ethical implications include not only access and content control, but also information transparency. Since the internet is often seen as a totally democratic landscape, with all users made equal through anonymity, any attempt to control the internet has anti-democratic implications as well.


Illustration of Basic Website Connection[2]

The Internet is comprised of independently-operated computers, known as servers (because they serve content), which are inter-connected on a global scale. This is why the Internet is also know as the "WorldWide Web". Many of these servers serve websites, which are viewable from a web browser on a user's computer. Websites can be owned and/or operated by anyone including a single person, large groups, businesses and corporations, as well as entire governments.

It is cheap to create a website, since it is possible for anyone with Internet access to create a basic website for free[3]. Once a user creates a website, then the website can usually be accessed from anywhere in the world. It is this ease and flexibility that has allowed the Internet to grow so quickly. This growth has lead to the wealth of information that is publicly accessible on the Internet. This wealth of information has made the Internet popular. However, there is no global Internet filter. Website operators can generally post whatever they want on the Internet, and this is what has made the Internet a somewhat controversial medium.

It is well known that governing bodies have always made special efforts to control the flow of information. For example, the United States (US) government keeps classified documents, which the US might not make public until a specified time period has passed from the time that the document was filed. In some countries, the government has complete control over what information is released via all public media outlets. But, the Internet represents a new, difficult-to-control digital medium, simply because of its shear size and global span.

Because the Internet is a distributed network of computers, it is difficult for any governing body to say what can and cannot be accessed or displayed on the Internet. Even if a government manages to control one outlet of information flow on the Internet, there are still many other ways that a user can get to the same information. In general, most other media outlets can be censored or controlled in some way by the local government. At the present time, the ethical use of the Internet is up to the user base. Because of this, the Internet is the source of much social controversy in the information age.

Information Subject to Control Attempts

Because there is no filter to prevent users from posting any kind of material on the Internet, the Internet has been the source of much controversy. There are two main kinds of information, of which third-parties generally seek to control the flow: sensitive material and that which carries intellectual property. Sensitive material is usually only intended for a small subset of people, and therefore, it requires that the information seeker verify his or her identity. On the Internet, it is easy to masquerade as someone else[4]. This makes it difficult for website operators to verify the important information required to view certain material such as a person's name or age. It is also well known that once information makes it to the Internet, it may be there forever. There is even a website dedicated to crawling the web and archiving websites on the Internet[5]. This makes it difficult to control intellectual property on the Internet such as music, movies, and books. Once the material has been leaked to the Internet, then there will almost always be a way to retrieve it without going through the process of identification or payment for the information.

Sensitive Material

One important example of sensitive material is pornography. Pornography is freely available on the Internet, and most websites require the visitor to be at least 18 years of age or older. However, verifying that the visitor is 18 is as easy as checking a box or typing a fake birth year. Because it is so easy to view pornography on the Internet, Internet pornography has been the source of some controversy. Some parties contend that Internet pornography should be able to be easily censored at a high level to protect the general public from explicit content. There have been some attempts to get ISPs have some kind of blocking at the ISP-level for Internet pornography. However, the general conclusion is that this is unfeasible due the amount of content that the ISPs would have filter[6].

Another important example of sensitive material on the Internet is politically sensitive information. In the context of material on the Internet, this often includes libel, videos of police activity, and classified government documents. The most notorious source of classified government documents on the Internet to date is the website Wikileaks. Wikileaks is a website where people (sometimes known as whistleblowers) who have access to sensitive government or corporate documents can go to publish any of such information anonymously. Some governments have responded negatively by attempting to block access to the Wikileaks website[7]. Credit card and other financial companies have also refused to cash donations made to Wikileaks[8]. Governments generally wish to control the flow of information on the Internet to prevent the leakage of politically sensitive materials, such as classified government documents.

Intellectual Property

Illustration showing the basic layout of a P2P network[9]

Another common use of the internet is peer-to-peer (P2P) networking, by which computers can connect to each other directly to share a particular file or set of files. P2P networking grew in popularity because it is easy to use to download music for free over the web. Now it is also used to legally share and download other files because of its relative ease of use and low cost. P2P networking is subject to the effect, which poses a problem for third-parties trying to control the flow of intellectual property on the Internet. As soon as one person downloads a file on an P2P network, then that file will be available for download in one more place. The network can continue to grow exponentially in this way, as more people download the same file. This also makes the origin of the file difficult to track, and even if one does find out who originally posted the file for download, then it is inconsequential because there will be many more places where the file can be downloaded. This makes it difficult to hold any one person accountable for the loss of intellectual property, in this case. Record companies often seek ways to block users from sharing music files on P2P networks, by blocking P2P networks entirely[10].


Civil Rights Issues

The United States has been a leader in civil rights. The first amendment to the US Constitution guarantees all people within the US certain rights including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Most parties in the US who oppose certain forms of Internet control contend that it is a violation of the people's first amendment rights[11]. Other countries have similar models of civil rights, like that of the US, where there is some kind of freedom speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech is an international law under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, people in other countries make similar arguments about violations of the their civil liberties when discussing internet control.

Free Enterprise

Free Enterprise refers to the economic system wherein the people can create privately-owned businesses (with relative ease) and sell goods to consumers within laws of the country. Internet pornography vendors sell pornographic content on the Internet for a profit. These vendors are generally required to abide by the laws regarding the sale of pornography in the country in which the company is selling[12]. However, Internet pornography vendors can often get around the laws of a particular country by moving that company's servers and serving the content from another country. Internet pornography vendors often contend that laws regulating the sale of pornography violate freedom of speech and freedom of expression, both of which go along with the informal terms of free enterprise[13].



Protest in Tiananmen Squar[14]

The government of the People's Republic of China has participated in some aggressive attempts at Internet censorship. The People's Republic of China regularly censors information regarding certain politically sensitive material. Most notably, they have censored information regarding certain political demonstrations that have been held at Tiananmen Square[15].

This type of censorship is generally made possible via aggressive filtering by government-owned ISPs. Furthermore, the Chinese government has even reached out to popular Internet search companies such as Google to make searches in China's locale censored for Chinese users.


The Bavarian actor, Walter Sedlmayr, was murdered in 1990, and his murderer is named on his Wikipedia page. The German law firm representing Sedlmayr, Stopp and Stopp, sent a cease and desist letter to Wikipedia requesting that the perpetrator's name be removed from the page. In this particular case, there is a conflict between US law and German law. In the US, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are protected under the US Constitution. However, German law protected citizens from unwanted publicity of their private lives[16].

United States

Infographic showing the possible effects of passing the SOPA bill into law[17]

The most significant attempt at Internet traffic control in the United States was the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This bill was introduced in October of 2011, and it would allow the United States Department of Justice and copyright holders to attempt to acquire court orders to prevent websites from enabling copyright infringement. Under this bill, the accusing parties could get court orders to force internet service providers (ISP) to block access to infringing websites at the Domain Name System (DNS) level.


In 2008 it emerged that Comcast, one of the nation's largest media companies, threatened to throttle the Internet speeds of its customers that use the most bandwidth. A spokesperson for the company expressed that this move was for the "...overall good of our customers"[18].

In February 2010, it was found that the ISP Verizon blocked access to some sites associated with 4chan. According to Verizon, this was done to ensure "no current risk of harm." Access to the site was restored to Verizon's customers within a few days[19]. Additionally, in August of 2008, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that the throttling of internet speeds for peer-to-peer sharing was illegal[20].

Ethical Implications

Control over the internet has direct implications on the people's freedom of speech. While users do connect to the internet through ISPs, no one person actually owns the internet. Restrictions on Internet access also restrict free speech, which the people are ethically obligated to promote. One ethical consideration is whether or not anyone should restrict what can and cannot be accessed through the internet, and who can and cannot access certain kinds of content.

Access Control

In this context, access control refers to who can and cannot access certain websites on the Internet. This kind of restriction is usually provoked due to the kind of content that the website is serving. However, it could be the case that a website is blocked for having sensitive content, even if not all of the content is sensitive or violates any sort of governmentally-enforced law. For example, there are some websites that are entirely user driven, like Twitter. If one user posts something on a site that is considered to be sensitive material, then it is often the question as to who should be held account. On the one side, a user posted the content. But, the party that owns the website is responsible for serving the content

Content Control

In this context, content control refers to the censorship or removal of specific content from a website. Content control is considered a violation of the people's basic civil rights. The Internet is one of the few mediums where users can truly post content anonymously. Therefore, users often feel safer posting content online. However, this feeling of security is violated, when a user's content is deemed unfit to be online and is removed by the serving website at the request of a third-party. However, this issue is often brought up when users take advantage of the security found when posting anonymously by posting content which carries intellectual property.

There is also some dispute as to whose job it is to control the flow of content that carries intellectual property with it. For example, websites like YouTube that host video content are routinely audited by music production companies for content that was published without the authorization of the correct music label such as music videos. Then, the intellectual property-owning companies will make a request to YouTube to have the infringing content removed. The question often comes up as to whether or not YouTube should allow users to post such content. Some also contend that it should remain the responsibility of the music production companies to keep track of their content. The main ethical issues surround which party should be responsible for monitoring this kind of content and whether or not there should be any kind of monitoring at all to preserve a free and open Internet.

Information Transparency

When a third-party attempts to have some kind of politically sensitive information removed from a website, that third-party's trustworthiness and efforts at information transparency are often brought into question. For example, when the People Republic of China blocks certain content from being accessed on the Internet for politically-motivated reasons, it is the people's natural response to question why that particular content was blocked and hidden. In general, any entity, governmental or otherwise, is morally responsible for its actions. As put by Adele Santana and Donna J. Wood, in their writing on transparency and social responsibility, "Exercising moral responsibility means, in part, being willing to accept the consequences of one’s acts and to ‘stand up and be counted.’" The people generally understand that when a government takes part in politically-motivated Internet censorship, that government does not want to "stand up" or "be counted"[21].

See Also


  1. Focus
  2. TecNoesis - Transactions & MySQL
  3. LifeHacker - The Simplest and Cheapest Free Web Hosting Services
  4. NYTimes - Fake Twitter Accounts Get Real Laughs
  5. - Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine
  6. Telegraph - Internet porn block plans 'not feasible', ISPs tell Government
  7. Gawker - Library of Congress Is Latest Government Institution to Block Wikileaks
  8. Forbes - Visa, MasterCard Move To Choke WikiLeaks
  9. Wikipedia - Peer-to-peer
  10. ReadWriteWeb - P2P Sharing Being Blocked Around the World, Where Next?
  11. ACLU - Network Neutrality 101 - Why the Government Must Act to Preserve the Free And Open Internet | American Civil Liberties Union
  12. Wikipedia - Legal Status of Internet Pornography
  13. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - [Pornography and Censorship]
  14. The Guardian - The 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square: how events unfolded
  15. Wired - [China Censors: The Tiananmen Square Anniversary Will Not Be Tweeted]
  16. EFF - Convicted Murderer To Wikipedia: Shhh!
  17. VentureBeat - What SOPA means for business & innovation (infographic)
  18. CNet News - FCC formally rules Comcast's throttling of BitTorrent was illegal
  19. CNet News - Comcast to throttle some customers' Web speeds
  20. CNet News - Verizon temporarily blocks some 4chan sites
  21. Santana, Adele, and Donna J. Wood. "Transparency and Social Responsibility Issues for Wikipedia." Springer, 6 May 2009. Web. 18 Dec. 2011.

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