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Is Censoring eCommerce as Bad as Censoring Speech?

• February 13, 2013 • 7:57 AM

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A busy, Ghanaian internet cafe.

MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman notes the work of sociologist Jenna Burrell, who spent several years studying internet use in Ghana.

Burrell’s work involved trying to identify the barriers to internet use in much of the world. Speaking at Harvard recently, she described attempting some basic online operations while in Ghana, and encountering digital roadblocks. The limited access included ecommerce and financial communication, but also other kinds of online interaction. No government censorship was involved — the firewalls came from the companies behind the particular websites, who have decided to block access to their services. This despite Ghana, in particular, boasting Africa’s fastest broadband, and the middle-class user base to support it. Zuckerman attended the conversation and summarized it:

Burrell has found that it’s often difficult to engage in basic online tasks from that country because sites and services exclude based on geolocation. Based on her experiences and that of her informants, she posits two types of exclusion: failure to include, and purposeful exclusion…When she tried to sign up for a sewing class in Oakland (to make something out of the beautiful batik she was buying in Ghana), PayPal told her that they didn’t serve customers in Ghana or Nigeria, and started a set of security checks that led to phone verification to her US phone, which didn’t work in Ghana.

Dating sites were another avenue closed to whole nations, including Ghana, Romania and Russia.

Zuckerman departs from Burrell’s research to ask some questions about exclusion from the internet broadly. Right now, blocking certain kinds of participation in internet communication is both legal and, in many corners, accepted as benign and even smart.

But what if it isn’t? The question went before a roundtable at Harvard yesterday, which Zuckerman summarizes:

[A participant in the Harvard workshop] wonders whether the practices Burrell is describing parallel redlining, the illegal practice of denying certain services or overcharging for them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of citizens of color. But another participant wonders whether we’re being unfair and suggests that using concepts like “censorship” to discuss online exclusion is unfairly characterizing what might simply be wise business practice. “Should a company be compelled to do business in a country where there’s no legal infrastructure to adequately protect it?” … Burrell notes that there are patterns of media coverage that contribute to why we don’t trust Ghanaians, and that those perceptions might not be accurate.

The question seems to boil down to whether there is any way to negotiate cross-cultural communication spaces, and to evaluate those spaces enough for them to be useful to participants on both sides of a cultural barrier. He describes carrying iPads on business trips for friends in Nigeria, who order them online but have them shipped to Zuckerman in the US, because they can’t complete the transactions from Lagos. And he notes how dating sites, assuming one is lucky (or, OK, charming) could conceivably change someone’s life more than access to Amazon.com ever could. Is access to OKCupid in Accra really as politically significant as access to Google in China?

It’s interesting to consider: the Internet Freedom agenda advocated by the US State Department focuses on countries that would block access to the internet to prevent certain types of political speech. But what if the real threat to global internet freedom starts with US companies that don’t see a profit in letting Ghanaian or Nigerian users onto their sites?

The rest of Zuckerman’s summary-with-bonus-rumination is here.

(A disclosure: A few years ago I worked on a project with Global Voices, an organization Zuckerman co-founded. I only met him  in passing, however.)

Marc Herman

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