The Internet controls China put into place Tuesday went beyond its previous efforts to regulate information on the Internet. But China has restricted Internet use for years, and it is not alone.
In fact, free-speech advocates say Internet restrictions are on the rise around the world, and could result in a global chilling effect on a medium that offers unprecedented freedom of expression.
China restricts access to both Internet accounts and certain kinds of Internet content. ISPs must register with the government, and users must obtain a government permit before they can open an Internet account. In addition, the government controls the three gateways that connect China to the international network, which allows the authorities to block about 100 sites before they reach the country's 200 local Internet service providers.
"Technically, (China has) found that censorship of the Internet doesn't work, but that doesn't mean the chilling effect isn't there," said Human Rights Watch research associate Jagdish Parikh. On a broader level, people have found ways around the technical blocks put into place by governments, but "for the people in those individual countries that have those laws, they do feel a chilling effect."
By contrast, Hong Kong offers relatively unfettered access to the Internet. The new Chinese restrictions explicitly exempt Hong Kong.
Singapore has Internet curbs that are, if anything, more strict than China's. Known for its disregard for freedom of the press, the nation regulates the Internet as a broadcast medium under the Singapore Broadcasting Authority of 1995, according to a 1996 report by Human Rights Watch.
Laws on the books hold ISPs responsible for what users access through their networks, and require service providers to have government licenses and to use filtering software. According to 1996 regulations, Web pages dealing with political or religious matters are subject to censorship.
While authoritarian governments are fencing off the Internet for political reasons, democratic countries have also pursued restrictions, with the aim of curbing pornography and hate speech.
Germany was involved in two highly publicized Internet censorship cases this year, both of which hinged on Germany's laws against material it considers obscene, violent or a danger to society.
In April, prosecutors indicted the head of CompuServe's online computer service there on charges of trafficking in pornography, attempting to hold the company responsible for material its customers could obtain from sites on the Internet.
And in June, a 25-year-old Frankfurt university student faced criminal charges for maintaining a Web page with a link to a left-wing Web-zine called Radikal. The government alleged that the student, Angela Marquardt, had violated orders to block access to Radikal, which presented articles on how to make bombs and derail trains.
In the United States, free-speech advocates have concerns that efforts to protect children from unsuitable materials will backfire. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was struck down by the Supreme Court because it held all Internet content to the standards of what is suitable for children. But critics argue that even parents' use of pornography filters, if it is not discriminating enough, could lead to the screening out of much of the Internet's worthwhile content.
Supporters of freedom of expression fear that the efforts of democracies to control the Internet could in effect encourage authoritarian regimes like China in pursuing censorship of political opinions.
"Censorship efforts in the U.S. and Germany lend support to those in China, Singapore and Iran, where censors target not only sexually explicit material and hate speech but also pro-democracy discussions and human rights education," argued Human Rights Watch in its 1996 report.
"Proposals to censor the Internet wherever they originate violate the free speech guarantees enshrined in democratic constitutions and international law," the report continued. "In the attempt to enforce them, open societies will become increasingly repressive and closed societies will find new opportunity to chill political expression."