RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — A wave of illegal content and government efforts to control the Web are threatening the explosive growth of the Internet, top technology experts told a landmark U.N. Internet Governance Forum on Tuesday.
With China leading the way, more governments are censoring free speech in the name of protecting social mores, while private companies such as Google play a growing role in determining what Internet users can access.
At the same time, child pornography, fraud and other ills are pushing more users to filter online information more aggressively, security experts said.
Combating harmful content while protecting the free flow of information was one of the main topics at the four-day conference, which runs through Thursday at a beachside hotel.
The forum, the second of five on the Internet's future that the United Nations has sponsored, also featured debates about the quality of online content, U.S. control of core Internet functions and other issues.
Many of the 1,700 government officials, technology experts and other participants said the future of the free Internet was at risk, as tighter regulations on content become the norm. Others countered that stronger measures are needed to stop the wave of online trash.
Malcolm Hutty, a spokesman for the London Internet Exchange, which connects British Internet service providers, said censorship of socially sensitive but legal Web sites was being imposed in the name of protecting children.
"We have to take account the real harm that online activity does to children, but we also have to be aware that this attempt to protect children is establishing norms that otherwise wouldn't be accepted," Hutty said.
Others, including child-protection advocates, said content-filtering software and other tools were legitimate ways for parents to monitor what their children were seeing and doing online.
"Seeing harmful content can lead to harmful actions," said Mark Kelly, an Irish human-rights lawyer.
Many were worried that more countries are defining any criticism of their governments as harmful.
More than 20 countries have shut down dissident blogs and news Web sites and have employed user information to identify and arrest online activists, said Rob Faris, the research director of the Open Net Initiative, an academic group.
China, with more than 160 million Internet users, has deployed an army of censors to block online content ranging from American news Web sites to domestic pro-democracy blogs. Vietnam and Myanmar have followed suit and cracked down on online political dissent.
"We're at a real crossroads as to whether the Internet can continue to be a forum for free speech or a kind of tool in the hands of repressive government to identify users," said Nick Dearden of the human rights group Amnesty International. "It's absolutely crucial to how the Internet develops what happens to China."
Chinese participants at the conference responded that online free speech has limits and governments also have the responsibility to block dangerous material.
On Monday night, the public-private Internet Society of China described how the country is creating a "harmonious" Internet by blocking spam, pornography and other "harmful online content" such as gambling sites.
Earlier in the day, Sha Zukang, a former Chinese ambassador who's the United Nations undersecretary general for economic and social affairs, said free speech also presented dangers to social peace.
"We are all for freedom of information, and that's why we're here," he said. "But you don't have the freedom to do anything. Freedom, yes. But certain regulations should be reasonable."
Those comments drew a quick rebuke from Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Brazil's minister of strategic planning.
"As the government Internet structure worldwide is developed, my goal is this government structure will become itself only one of the chief paladins of freedom in the world and will combat all restraints on the passage of ideas in the world and all attempts by national states to prevent the entrance of subversive ideas into their borders," he said.
Much of the criticism at the conference also singled out U.S. companies such as Google, which have agreed to Chinese government demands and censored Web sites.
"Giving information to those people is better than not giving them any information at all," Google spokesman Robert Boorstin responded.
ON THE WEB
The official Web site of the U.N. Internet Governance Forum: http://www.intgovforum.org