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Internet censorship: right, wrong or both?

Advocates of unlimited free speech hold that the internet should never, under any circumstances and by any person or organization, by censored in the United States.

My heart agrees but my better judgment tells me there are certain instances in which some form of internet censorship is necessary.

The structure for this argument follows the SAD formula of Situation, Analysis and Decision (Louis Alvin Day, 2003).

S: Situation Definition

What are the facts?

The World Wide Web started off as the World Wild West, completely open and uncontrolled by any authority. However, now that ordinary people have the means to put potentially damaging and disruptive content online, governments are realizing that the internet has to be controlled in some way.

Many countries now censor their national internet, including Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The Kremlin has this week voted in a new law to censor the internet in Russia, with a national list of banned websites that ISPs must shut down. Among the reasons cited are child pornography websites and sites that encourage drug use and teenage suicide. Iran has plans to launch a “national internet” – and in China, the classic case of internet censorship, access to some Western news sites and to content that might destabilize the Communist regime is effectively blocked.

The fact is that many governments and organizations censor their local and national internet space in some way. Should the U.S. follow suit?

What the principles behind internet censorship?

Oliver Burkeman argues, in an excellent Guardian newspaper report, that debates about censorship and freedom of speech online boil down to the “fundamental question of whether the internet should be ‘open’ – a place of unfettered expression, self-organising order and plenty of chaos – or ‘closed’ and controlled, subjugated to existing frameworks of politics, policing and law.”

The Western value system leans towards the “open” internet, since freedom of speech is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in fundamental Western philosophies such as those of John Stuart Mill.

At the extreme end of freedom of speech is digital utopianism – that free speech should reign supreme, and that online openness should be championed at all costs. The phenomenon of digital utopianism is excellently espoused in Frank Turner’s book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. This is the view of techno-libertarians and groups such as the OpenNet Initiative and Reporters without Borders, who publish an annual list of “Enemies of the Internet.

At the other end of the scale are many conservative citizens and mums who desire the internet to be a civilized space, free of child pornography, sex, drugs, suicide, violent death and other social taboos.

In the middle are people like me, who recognize that some sort of control over the internet space is necessary – but that in most cases it is either technically impossible or socially undesirable to censor the net.

What is the fundamental issue behind internet censorship?

Accepting, for the sake of argument, that the internet can and should be censored in some way, I identify four areas of controversy.

  1. WHO has the right to censor the web – and who decides who has that right?
  2. In what CONTEXTS is it right to censor the web?
  3. WHY? What is the purpose behind internet censorship, and is that purpose legitimate?
  4. Are there alternatives to internet censorship that would be more effective and easier for the public and free speech advocates to swallow?

A: Analysis of the Situation

Ideas vs information

Even free speech advocates will admit that there is a vast chasm between censoring ideas and censoring information. Ideas should never be censored, however unattractive they are. Information, on the other hand, can and should in some cases be censored.

During World Wars I and II, British censors blacked out whole sentences and paragraphs in personal letters and newspapers in order to hinder information-gathering by German intelligence. If World War III were to break out and somebody decided to leak the entire US defense strategy on the internet, I would hope that they would be prevented from endangering the country.

Arguments about national security are admittedly shaky. Who is to decide what is and is not to be censored in the interests of national security? In many countries, “national security” can be used as a smokescreen for dodgy dealings and corruption. However, that doesn’t mean that national security is not a good reason to prohibit some content from being freely available online.

Private and corporate vs. state censorship

Local, privately owned organizations on the internet can legitimately self-censor their own online spaces, as long as they make their policies clear. For instance, if somebody makes an inappropriate comment on my personal blog, I am at liberty to “censor” their freedom of speech by removing it. A company might decide to censor their internal network to stop employees releasing corporate secrets, whether deliberately or inadvertently.

In an interesting recent case, Facebook were lambasted for removing a link to a Human Rights Watch report posted by the free speech advocacy group Article 19. The group’s executive director, Dr Agnes Callamard, complained: “The deletion shows the looming threat of private censorship…. Facebook act like judge, jury and executioner.”

However, even though Facebook could and should have done more to investigate the case and inform the group before removing the link, it is arguably justified that Facebook have a moderation team that removes offensive or inappropriate content. In a way, this is an example of a community being responsible by censoring and policing itself.

Censorship in context

Context matters greatly in debates about internet censorship. For instance, most parents would agree that websites which encourage teen suicide, glamorize drug-taking or show violent and pornographic material should be censored on school computers, by filtering software or a code of conduct. Those same websites may be legitimate and (borderline) acceptable in other settings, such as private homes or research institutes.

What else?

Several other factors must be taken into consideration.

  • There is a difference between censoring the internet and censoring traditional media such as newspapers. There are a finite number of newspapers and each newspaper has a finite number of pages, which makes censorship more straightforward. Moreover, newspapers are written by trained journalists who are careful about claims that they make and information that they release. On the web, the amount of content available is infinite, uncontrolled, impossible to keep track of and produced mainly by people with no fear of lawsuits or training in journalistic codes of conduct.
  • Many laws already exist that may be sufficient for stopping harmful content being available online. For instance, privacy laws, and laws against illegal drug sales or child pornography. Before enacting any internet censorship bill, we should look at existing laws that impact these issues.
  • Should censorship should be reactive or proactive? Installing filtering software on computers in libraries and schools is a form of proactive censorship. If, on the other hand, we wait until something harmful is put online then demand that an ISP removes it from the internet, that is a form of reactive censorship.
  • It may not even be possible to censor the web effectively. People get around current censorship in China and Iran using proxy websites or VPNs. It is likely that whatever censorship methods are put in place, determined hackers will always be able to get around them.

Duties and responsibilities

  • As a society, we have a duty to our fellow citizens to protect their freedom of speech…but also to protect society as a whole. The latter duty underlies arguments for internet censorship on the grounds of national security.
  • We also have a duty to protect an individual’s right to privacy. When one person’s freedom of expression infringes on another’s right to privacy, we should be able to resolve that by limiting that freedom of expression in some way.
  • We have a duty to our children and teens, to protect them from obscene or harmful content while they are young and vulnerable.
  • We have a duty to protect intellectual property and corporate secrets in order to allow the economy to flourish.
  • We have a duty to protect individuals from con-men and fraudulent phishing websites whose sole purpose is to engage in criminal activity.

D: Decision

Context matters so greatly in questions of internet censorship that I find it impossible to list areas where censoring content is either right or wrong. Rather, I think every issue should be discussed openly and transparently.

Rather than entrust a few people with decisions as to what should be censored and why, I think we should engage in candid debate – as a society, through politics, the courts, the media, and internet blogs and forums.

Hillary Clinton has campaigned globally for “internet freedom.” Attempting to censor the web would put the U.S. government in the strange position of encouraging people in foreign regimes to beat internet censors, as this article in the Guardian newspaper explores, while preventing their own citizens from viewing content freely.

Moreover, we can’t stop the web. Rather than focusing on censorship, I think we should explore innovative ways of helping useful, better quality internet content triumph over the bad stuff. Options include refining search engines, exploring so-called “net neutrality” (which stops ISPs making it harder to access one site over another) and plain old self-censorship by organizations that listen to their users.

I think this would satisfy the generally accepted Western idea that freedom of expression should be limited only when there is a real, demonstrable and universally agreed need to prevent harm to vulnerable people.



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