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Internet Has Its Own Brand of War Censorship

Al Jazeera, YellowTimes hit bumps

With so much mainstream media power held by large corporations, the Internet was supposed to be the last bastion of unedited, uncensored, truly independent news. But it's never really lived up to that ideal in full, and a few recent cases show just why. Arab cable channel Al Jazeera recently launched an English version of its Web site, but it was quickly hacked down (along with the Arabic site) after the channel showed controversial footage of POWs and dead soldiers.

Just how explosive and divisive and interesting is the Qatar-based channel? The Guardian reports that it has gained 4 million subscribers recently in Europe, and Google News was choking with so many American outlets covering Al Jazeera's latest foibles. The New York Stock Exchange booted its reporters from the trading floor. In a bizarre twist, the broadcaster actually called on the U.S. to help defend its freedom of the press. "This is yet another example of people trying to interfere with freedom of expression and the press," Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout told Reuters. "Freedom of the press must be protected. This is not restricted only to America, it should be an international effort."

Reuters' Merissa Marr noted that the channel's popularity hadn't stopped it from being banned in many Arab states in the past. InfoWorld's Paul Roberts had the most information on the hack of Al Jazeera's site, which might have come in tandem with a huge demand from visitors wanting to see the video. While the channel pushed for more bandwidth, its U.S. hosting company, DataPipe, decided not to host the site anymore. Al Jazeera was suspicious of its motives, and suspected "an organization with know-how and money" behind the hack. But experts told InfoWorld it was a pretty simple "distributed denial of service" attack.

 

More ISP trouble

As you'd expect online, when one in-demand Web site bites it, a mirror site usually springs up to take up the slack. But for YellowTimes.org, showing stills of the Al Jazeera photos brought it a different kind of trouble. Its hosting company, Vortech, shut the site for a few hours due to an adult content clause in its contract. Reuters' Bernhard Warner wrote that "the move is stoking fears that as more grisly images and accounts of war surface, independent news sites trying to establish a name for themselves will have to tone down their coverage so as not to alienate readers and the companies that keep their sites alive."

YellowTimes plans to go live again with new servers based in San Francisco -- and then will likely have to deal with a huge influx of traffic. For indies online, if the hacks and ISPs don't kill you, there's always the crush of popularity. YellowTimes' editor Erich Marquardt was using the censorship issue to his advantage, getting publicity in Reuters and in WorldNetDaily, with a preview of an upcoming column defending its decision on the photos.

"Here, at YellowTimes.org," writes reporter Firas Al-Atraqchi, "we did not want these stories to go untold. We wanted to bring the horrors of war inflicted on all sides. We condemn killing, we condemn war, and we certainly condemn persecution and torture. We also condemn the intentional absence of truth. Someone wants you, the reading public, to only gather one-sided, monotone, Orwellian dispatch. News the way they 'fashion' it. Or as CNN will have you believe, the 'most reliable source for news.' I do beg your pardon, no, we weren't shut down -- we were censored, pure and simple."

 

Google and Jesus

Finally, there's the case of antiwar site Unknown News, which simply wanted to buy an ad on Google that read: "Who would Jesus bomb? Antiwar bumper stickers from Unknown News." First Google rejected the ad because it had language that "advocates against an individual, group, or organization." When presented with the fact that the site actually was against hate and war, and not a hate speech site, Google took another tack, saying they had to remove the Jesus reference. Finally, with one more explanatory email, Google allowed the ad. You can follow the entire email back-and-forth at the Politech discussion list or at Unknown News.

More troubling from Google (in the same Politech thread) was a rejection by Google News to index InfoShop News ("your online anarchist community"). Google responded that, "We are not accepting sites where all articles are produced by one individual. We are looking for sources with current news written by a staff of reporters and edited by a staff editor." That might make sense in the short run, but the Infoshop defender noted that sites such as Indymedia, weblogs, and others wouldn't make the cut on that constraint. Nor would Drudge.

So, at the end of the day, is the Net more open to controversial opinions (and photos)? Yes, the photos do live on at other sites. But should small publishers watch out for security holes, restrictive ISP contracts, and omnipotent search engines? For sure.

Glaser Online regularly combs the following sites for links to pertinent stories: OnlineJournalism.com, IWantMedia, Romenesko, PaidContent.org, Google News and AltaVista News.


Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for TechWeb, occasional features for The New York Times' Circuits section, marketing material for Comcast Online, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at [email protected].

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