The Internet has opened wide the doors of communication. It has revolutionized the way people access information, interact with others and disseminate knowledge. However, some governments go to great lengths to censor the type of information that its citizens can access. And some attempt to silence those who choose to openly criticize the government and its political leaders. In this light, freedom of expression and the right to access all parts of the Internet becomes an issue of digital ethics.
We post things to our blogs, comment in forums and register our details on websites, sometimes attracting the attention of individuals or collective entities. Conscious users may wonder how their data is being used or if others are interested in what they post online. Companies like LinkedIn, Microsoft and Twitter are starting to respond to users’ curiosity about how data is treated by publishing transparency reports. Google publishes a report twice a year, which includes stats on the accessibility of Google services as well as requests that copyright holders or governments have made for the removal of content. It also reports on other issues of importance related to Internet freedom on its blog. Google reported that, in the first half of 2012, 20,938 government inquiries were made regarding user data.
In terms of content removal, governments made 1,791 requests to remove 17,746 pieces of information. Overall, Google noted that in the last few years there has been an increase in requests from governments to take down political language. It’s this censorship trend that has raised alarm bells.
Keeping censorship activities transparent is important to more than a few Internet giants. There are several watchdog organizations that keep tabs on digital censorship. Freedom House is one organization that believes freedom is only guaranteed in democratic societies, where the government is held accountable to its citizens. For the past few years, Freedom House has put out a comprehensive report called Freedom on the Net, which highlights the censorship activities of other countries. Freedom House views digital media as an “increasingly important dimension of human rights.”
In its 2012 report, it profiled 47 countries, many of which could be divided into three categories: blockers, nonblockers, and nascent blockers. “Blockers” are defined as those governments that block a “large number of politically relevant websites, often imposing complete blocks on certain social-media platforms.” These countries—which include Bahrain, Iran and Ethiopia—mainly employ these blocking tactics to curtail freedom of expression. “Nonblockers” employ more subtle censorship tactics, i.e., not blocking sites outright, but controlling behind the scenes through enforcing strict laws on free speech or employing agents to delete website content. “Nascent blockers,” like Russia, have dabbled in censorship, but have no structured system for doing so.
Governments that have enforced tighter Internet controls recently may have been intimidated by the events of Arab Spring, which erupted at the end of 2010 in Tunisia. The tumultuous events that took place set off waves of protests throughout the Middle East. 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in response to the abusive treatment he received from municipal officials. He represented just one of many dispirited by unemployment, unjust treatment and poor living standards. Almost immediately people began mobilizing themselves online through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, despite media blackout attempts.
The government quickly pushed back by disabling profiles, hacking into accounts and engaging in online surveillance. More than 100 Facebook pages regarding the protests were blocked. Articles from foreign media, like the BBC, covering these events were also censored. We know that in the end President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was eventually ousted from his post. From there the fervor for change spread to other parts of the Middle East. While social media didn’t single-handedly dismantle an already broken system, it helped to further shake things up by keeping the public abreast of the unfolding events.
China is probably the classic example of a place where its users are subject to Internet censorship on a regular basis. The government enforces a complex network known as the Great Firewall on the largest number of online users. Not surprisingly, Freedom House classifies China under the “blocker” category. In order to keep the web of censorship going, the government privately employs censors, Internet monitors, and Internet police. Social media platforms are restricted by controlling international networks and by directing local providers to censor and monitor usage.
Sometimes censorship manifests itself offline, too. In February 2011, Chinese bloggers, activists and lawyers were subject to detention, abduction and abuse after calling for a revolution in line with the events of Arab Spring. These protests were named the “Jasmine Revolution,” after the Tunisian uprisings. Telecommunication companies China Mobile and China Unicom also employed the usual censorship methods by blocking the word “jasmine” from being transmitted and from coming up in searches.
Savvy users work their way around the blocks by using code words to circumvent censorship or through alternative means. Websites like Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, has been cited as one tool at users’ disposal. While the website is subject to censorship, there is still the potential to reach millions of readers. A recent study conducted in Hong Kong shows that the percentage of active users may not be as high as previously thought, but regardless of exact numbers, Sina Weibo provides another venue for people to practice freedom of expression.
Both individuals and organizations are invested in raising awareness of unlawful censorship and finding ways to counteract these activities. At the end of June 2012, the UN affirmed that the right to freedom of expression on the Internet is an issue of increasing importance as individuals continue to gain access to, and experiment with technology. It stated that the same rights people have offline should be protected online as well. From individuals who assert their own rights regardless of the consequences, to organizations like the UN and other independent entities who “out” those who try to censor behind closed doors, it’s becoming more difficult to keep excessive censorship practices hidden for very long.
It’s not just authoritarian governments that have considered online censorship either. Watchful eyes turn toward countries like the United States as well, where freedom of expression in its various forms is protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. While constitutional freedoms are more desirable than the controlling situations elsewhere, the laws in place pose its own set of challenges. Over the years, there have been many conversations as to how much, if any, content should be censored by the government.
Obscenity, particularly when it comes to child pornography, is a big moral issue. Minors should be protected online, and in order to do so laws would need to be enacted to cover their rights. In 1998, the US government passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which would criminalize websites that allow children access to objectionable material or solicit information beyond what’s needed to participate in an activity without parental consent. The law was reviewed for merit shortly after, and put to rest 10 years later. Perhaps due to its overbroad nature, COPA was ruled unconstitutional and said to infringe on adults’ right to free speech. Skeptics of the effectiveness of such censorship point to the need for parents to educate their children about using the Internet responsibly. Other bills related to online security continue to be proposed, but its success always comes down to whether or not the law treads too much on First Amendment rights.
That raises the question: Is there such a thing as ethical censorship? Under law, particularly in democratic nations, there are assurances that citizens can freely express themselves without fear of persecution or censorship. For some, even if that censorship is aimed at so-called objectionable content, “ethical” and “censorship” do not go hand and hand. Most of us can probably agree that the heavy hand that certain governments have on its people is uncalled for and unjust. But it seems that in democratic nations where freedom of expression is inherent in its laws, there won’t be 100 percent agreement on where the boundaries lie. On the one hand, there is freedom of expression. On the other, there is a desire to protect the population from potentially unsavory and otherwise harmful content. Fine line aside, it’s apparent that free speech is definitely not free everywhere. However, it’s becoming harder and harder for those who desire to quench the liberties of its citizens to do so without meeting resistance.
Erin Mauger is a freelance writer from Milwaukee currently based in Australia. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.