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Living with the Streisand Effect
By Evgeny Morozov
of December 26, 2008)
The Britain-based Internet Watch Foundation has a noble mission: to combat images of child abuse online. They regularly communicate with British Internet service providers, the government and the police to thwart the proliferation of such images.
Thus, there was nothing extraordinary about IWF's decision to go after a Web site that hosted a picture of a nude teenage girl on the cover of a 1970s album by The Scorpions, a German heavy-metal band.
The only problem is that the site in question is Wikipedia, one of the most popular on the Web. Several British Internet service providers complied with IWF's demands and made that particular Wikipedia entry (both its text and the image) unavailable to their subscribers. However, this ban has also made it nearly impossible to differentiate between legitimate users of Wikipedia and vandals, significantly complicating the job of the site's administrators.
A principled and unflinching response from the Wikipedian community followed shortly: They decided to make their entire site - not just one page - inaccessible to subscribers of the six Internet service providers.
This controversy is poised to reopen important debates about the future of online free speech and the greater responsibility to self-police that community sites like Wikipedia have. What's more interesting, however, is why IWF's aggressive efforts have backfired and compromised their initial goal: to suppress public interest in the original Scorpions picture. Contrary to IWF's expectations, the almost-forgotten album cover became an overnight Internet sensation. IWF has fallen victim to the Streisand Effect, a phenomenon on the Internet where an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information backfires, causing the information to be widely publicized. It owes its name to Barbara Streisand's unsuccessful legal efforts to suppress the publication of photos of her Malibu house; this campaign only brought more Internet publicity to her private life. Recent victims of the Streisand Effect include the Church of Scientology (trying to suppress a video of Tom Cruise speaking about the church), the Swiss bank Julius Baer (trying to suppress documents alleging the bank's complicity in asset hiding and money laundering), and the Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov (trying to suppress criticism and juicy biographical details of his early life that appeared on British blogs).
As the Streisand Effect gradually becomes required textbook material for any student of public relations, it's surprising to see that some organizations and individuals still prefer to operate in the pre-Streisand age of threats and court orders. For better or worse, the Internet does not adequately respond to the threat of legal action: One simply can't sue so many often anonymous individuals from so many jurisdictions.
Another reason why direct confrontation on the Web doesn't work is because it is impossible to force digital content "off the Internet." On the contrary, the more you try to suppress it, the more resilient such content becomes. As Barbara Streisand discovered, adopting a militaristic posture against a tech-savvy mob of civil libertarians is not going to be of much help: Many of them run their own servers and blogs - and have thousands of friends on their social networks - so overzealous attempts to silence them only lead to wider dissemination of sensitive information.
This leaves the aggrieved parties with two options: silence and dialogue. In today's media age, keeping quiet can be strategic too, particularly if you are a Russian oligarch with a murky past. Sue the bloggers in question and you risk propelling your own name in the headlines, if only for the fact that you have tried to muzzle free speech.
But what about organizations like IWF that are fighting for more noble causes? Their default strategy in the age of the Streisand Effect should be engaging - not fighting - the online communities that host materials that they find offensive, particularly when these communities are popular and otherwise uncontroversial. For all its shortcomings, Wikipedia does have strong governance and deliberative mechanisms; anyone who has ever followed discussions on Wikipedia's mailing lists will confirm that its moderators and administrators openly discuss controversial issues on a regular basis.
However revolutionary it may be, the Internet still hasn't altered the basic law of human communication: Being nice to your interlocutors is a good way to start any negotiations, particularly, when being hostile is an open invitation for a cyber-fight.
Evgeny Morozov is a fellow at The Open Society Institute in New York and a member of its Information Program's board.