7.4.2 Government strategies

One control strategy favoured by authoritarian regimes (for example in some Asian and Middle Eastern countries) is to require all citizens to access the Net via ISPs that are owned or controlled by the government. This gives the authorities the ability to monitor what users do on the Net (in terms of emails sent and received, websites accessed and materials downloaded). It also gives them the ability to block access to selected sites, including those hosted in other countries. If citizens wish to circumvent these controls, they can – at least in principle – subscribe to an ISP in another country. But this involves the expense and inconvenience of making long-distance telephone calls, transferring money for subscription fees, etc., and so is probably beyond the reach of most users. The implication is that it is possible, in practice if not in principle, to exercise considerable control on how citizens use the Web.

Democratic regimes tend to avoid such direct methods of control, for political or constitutional reasons. But they have developed subtler methods of regulation based on special legislation and aimed again at ISPs. An example is the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, which you came across in Section 2. This gives the security authorities sweeping powers for surveillance of online activity. The Act enables the Home Secretary, for example, to compel an ISP to install special monitoring equipment which forwards a copy of every data packet passing through the ISP's servers to a special monitoring centre in MI5 headquarters in London. The Act also provides powers (under warrant) for intercepting and reading an individual's email messages, and the power (without warrant) to monitor any individual's ‘clickstream’ – i.e. the record of websites and pages accessed.

Finally, governments can compel institutions, like libraries, that provide public internet access to install filtering software which blocks access to certain kinds of site. This is the approach adopted by the US government in relation to federally funded libraries.

7.4 Curbing the Web: control

7.4.3 Corporate control strategies