The reason it can be difficult to regulate online behavior in a global environment is because the internet itself is global, and it is impossible for one jurisdiction to regulate internet content or behavior that exists in another jurisdiction. Also, any attempts at restricting internet access or behaviors often fail because there is always a technical workaround. Thus, while some countries such as China have had some success at its attempts to regulate the internet (Stevens et al. 946), no strategy will be completely effective, and if a user is determined enough, he or she can usually find ways to subvert any restrictions in place.
Regarding the global nature of the internet, websites are hosted around the world. If a government took issue with a certain site, it would have limited technological capabilities of limiting access to a site that originated in a different country. Provided the website was legal in its country of origin, an external attempt to shut down the site would not be legally feasible. This would then require the country to direct its own internet service providers to limit access to the site as a means of restricting its own citizens from viewing it. However, there is always a workaround this type of restriction through various technical means. For instance, a virtual private network, or VPN, is a type of widely-available software that masks the location of the user (Hobbs and Roberts 16). A person using a VPN would then still be able to access a site that was restricted by a local government.
Another logistical problem with attempting to regulate accessibility and behavior on the internet is because if a site is restricted or even taken down, a new site with similar content can be created overnight. This means that users of one platform can simply migrate to another, if the original site no longer works. The attempt to shut down every single new site that is created, if a country finds it objectionable, would be ineffective because new sites and internet platforms would constantly be created. Unlike other media sources, such as television and radio, internet sources do not need standard licenses and permissions to operate that television and radio stations require. There is no need for an external publisher, as with newspapers or magazines, so it would also be unfeasible for a government to restrict the creation of an internet site, much less control how it was being used.
Most attempts at regulation online behavior by the government are attempts to control information that might make a government appear unfavorable. Therefore, from a political perspective, overt attempts at censorship would also result in condemnation from the global community, particularly if it was used to silence government dissent. Because the information that is being regulated would spread anyway, this would create further resentment against the government once the censorship was publicized. Although some authoritarian countries such as China have had some success at censoring internet content, this is only with the complicity of site creators; for instance, Google has acquiesced to some of China’s censorship demands (Stevens et al. 948). However, even this type of censorship does not mean that information is wiped from the internet, but only that Google does not facilitate searches for the information. There are other methods, such as accessing the site directly, that would not be affected by this type of censorship. This behavior can be monitored, and there may even be legal liabilities if censorship is circumvented in this manner, but these types of restrictions would cause other political pressures on the government attempting to implement these types of controls. Therefore, it is difficult to impose widespread regulations on the internet, due to its global design and nature.
- Hobbs, William R., and Margaret E. Roberts. “How sudden censorship can increase access to information.” American Political Science Review (2018): 1-16.
- Stevens, Charles E., En Xie, and Mike W. Peng. “Toward a legitimacy‐based view of political risk: The case of Google and Yahoo in China.” Strategic Management Journal 37.5 (2016): 945-963.