Censorship: National, International

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Censorship: National, International

Censorship is a practice that limits public access to materials, including printed text, photographs and art, music and video, or other multimedia, based on the value judgments or prejudices of the censoring individuals or groups. According to psychologist Sara Fine, censorship is essentially a defense mechanism triggered by fear of threats of some sort. Whether this fear is based on a real threat, an exaggeration of some actual danger, or an unconscious reaction to some dark, hidden impulse is irrelevant. Thus, just about any material can be censored. Materials most likely to be censored in the United States are those that deal with sex and sexuality, challenge the authority of adults, or differ from the censor's beliefs and traditions.

Librarian Lester Asheim points out that censorship is different from selection, which is the process of deciding which resources to include in a museum or library collection, for example, in that censorship favors the control of thought whereas selection favors the liberty of thought. Censorship's approach to materials is negative, seeking vulnerable characteristics within or outside the work, and often without considering the work as a whole. Selection's approach is positive, seeking the merits of the work by examining the entire document. Censorship seeks to protect others from images, ideas, or language deemed by the censor to be negative in some way, whereas selection seeks to protect people's right to read, view, or otherwise experience the material in question. Censors trust only their own intelligence; selectors have faith in the reader's intelligence. In sum, censorship is authoritarian while selection is democratic.

The primary argument against censorship is that it infringes on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

While some citizens are strongly against censorship of any kind, believing it is undemocratic, others advocate some censorship on the Internet for several reasons. Chief among them are web sites featuring adult or child pornography as well as those with racist or hate speech. Many of the concerned people are parents who do not want their kids exposed to such material, which they believe is easily accessible via the Internet. They fear their children might stumble onto such sites while innocently surfing the web.

Censorship and Computers

As it pertains to the world of computingand to the Internet, in particularcensorship may be accomplished by the use of filtering or blocking software. There are several types of filtering software available: keyword blocking, host or site blocking, and protocol blocking. These filters are generally promoted as ways to limit children's access to "adult materials" available via the Internet. Parents, schools, and public libraries are the target customers for filtering software.

Keyword blocking indiscriminately targets individual words or strings of words to be blocked; the vocabulary usually consists of taboo words related to parts of the body, sex, etc. Thus, web sites or pages with information about breast cancer, penile erectile dysfunction, and Essex county might be blocked out and rendered inaccessible.

Host blocking targets specific Internet sites for blocking; the block could include the entire site or only files on that site. Host blocking sometimes results in the politically motivated exclusion of sites dealing with women's issues (e.g., the site of the National Organization for Women), feminism, or the environment.

Protocol filtering blocks entire domains, such as Usenet, which hosts a variety of pornographic chat groups, and file transfer protocol (FTP) , which could theoretically retrieve materials from blocked sites. This, of course, also limits user access to chat groups and other resources that would not otherwise be censored.

Examples of commercial filtering products are CyberPatrol, CyberSitter, NetNanny, SafeSurf, SurfWatch, and WebSENSE. These filters have their own web sites and most have test software that can be downloaded. In each case, vendors determine the blocking language and decide which sites should be blocked. However, each offers a password that can turn off the system, and various options for custom configuration of categories.

Censorship Abroad

There are constitutional guarantees and a strong commitment to the full exercise of free speech in the United States. However, this is not the case in many countries of the world. The international organization, Human Rights Watch, issued a report on the global attack on free speech on the Internet. In the document's summary, the threat is clearly stated: "Governments around the world, claiming they want to protect children, thwart terrorists and silence racist and hate mongers, are rushing to eradicate freedom of expression on the Internet, the international 'network of networks,' touted as the Information Superhighway."

In China users and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required to register with authorities. Vietnam and Saudi Arabia permit only a single, government-controlled gateway for Internet service; Germany has severed access to particular host computers or Internet sites; and Singapore requires political and religious content providers to register with the state so that the government may regulate the Internet as if it were a broadcast medium like television. These are just a few examples of the ways in which Internet-based communication and content are monitored, regulated, and often censored worldwide.


Should cyberspace receive the full freedom of speech and press that is accorded to print materials, or are there valid arguments for increased restrictions? One might ask: Is a teen more likely to take up smoking because he or she sees pictures of celebrities on the Internet with cigarettes in hand? Is a child more likely to find lewd pictures on the Internet than in a bookstore or library? These are the types of questions that need to be raised when considering whether the risks of offensive texts or images on the Internet are greater than those from printed materials, and whether they are worth weakening the freedom of speech that is important to protecting political, religious, and personal freedom in the United States.

see also Internet; Internet: Applications; Privacy; Security; World Wide Web.

Joyce H-S Li


Asheim, Lester. "Not Censorship but Selection." Wilson Library Bulletin 28 (1953): 6367.

. "Selection and Censorship: A Reappraisal." Wilson Library Bulletin 58 (1983): 180184.

Burress, Lee. Battle of the Books: Literary Censorship in the Public Schools, 19501985. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1989.

Fine, Sara. "How the Mind of a Censor Works: The Psychology of Censorship." School Library Journal 42 (1996): 2327.

Godwin, Mike. Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age. New York: Random House, 1998.

"Silencing the Net: The Threat to Freedom of Expression On-line." Human Rights Watch 8 (May 1996).

Wallace, Jonathan, and Mark Mangan. Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace: Freedom and Censorship on the Frontiers of the Online Revolution. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Internet Resources

Index on Censorship: The International Magazine for Free Expression. <http://www.oneworld.org/index_oc/index.html>