Growing internet development has revolutionized the way in which information and ideas are spread, with an estimated 4.39 billion users worldwide. This serves as a crucial bastion of individual liberty, allowing greater freedom of communication and access to information today than would ever have been possible throughout history.
Such an unprecedented set of opportunities extends, to varying degrees, in different countries, depending on each government’s willingness to respect the principles of freedom of expression, communication, and investigation.
As a matter of principle, dialogue and open discussion of opinions online should not be impeded by the state, yet governments around the world are increasingly keen to gain more control over the online world, recognizing the extraordinary power of a free internet and the impact that this has on their own accountability.
Censorship and control of various forms of media have a long history in most societies, but internet censorship has often proved particularly challenging for governments to enforce, compared to the suppression of more traditional media.
This has made the digital world into a form of new frontier and outlet for dissenting views, especially valuable to activists living under some of the world’s more authoritarian regimes.
State response to the digital frontier
Some governments are blatant in their efforts to thwart online freedom. Examples of this can be seen in countries such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, with high levels of state control over the internet. This can involve filtering online searches, blocking IP addresses, controlling which search engines are available, completely blocking certain websites, and punishing those individuals seen as transgressors.
Governments are often prepared to invest heavily in policing the internet. For example, in China, the government employs over 50,000 people to monitor all online activity. In addition to restrictions on access to outside political media, many countries around the world, particularly in Asia and parts of Africa, have either limited or no access to mainstream social networks.
However, a different form of online censorship also exists in places like Europe and North America, one that is more subtle but an infringement on individual liberties nevertheless.
There are reasons to believe that this is a growing problem, given current trends towards greater online regulation. Such censorship is often promoted under the guise of anti-terrorism or hate crime laws, in the interest of public safety and well-being, but in many cases constitutes a clear overreach by the state, particularly in the absence of any incitement to violence.
The result is that many topics and opinions are becoming increasingly off limits in terms of having any sort of debate. In turn, this approach can actually make certain extreme ideologies seem more appealing to those who feel that their opinions are unduly stifled.
Many measures taken are ineffective at achieving their intended outcome, as restrictions only push internet users towards finding ways to circumvent them. For instance, a recent attempt in the UK to ensure that pornographic websites could only be accessed with an online proof of age ID card, is only going to encourage more people to consider alternative measures, such as using a virtual private network (VPN), steganography, and refraction networking.
These are able to help protect users’ identities by bouncing signals around the world, making their location difficult to trace. VPNs are also extensively used in countries with significant levels of Internet censorship,by individuals seeking information from sources other than those approved by their government.
The internet as a free marketplace of ideas
A free marketplace of ideas is a fundamental cornerstone of a free society. The internet comes closer to fulfilling this function than anything else ever has.
It is thus of paramount importance that free and open dialogue online is not threatened by censorship and state overreach. Another factor that is increasingly interfering with this free marketplace is the fear that many private companies have of being held legally responsible for the content that users post through their platforms, resulting in the development of an unfortunate culture of censorship.
As a result of this, major social media platforms, which present themselves as apolitical, have frequently resorted to removing posts and banning certain users for expressing controversial views. Although this is often related to the company’s own values, it is also in many cases about cooperating and complying with governments. Search engines have been removing access to websites that are deemed offensive or unwelcome by certain regimes.
However, censorship does not result in the eradication of unpopular opinions or political dissent. On the contrary, it typically has the effect of pushing people towards further extremes and fosters polarization.
Internet censorship can also be seen as infantilizing and insulting to an adult population, which should not be impeded from sharing and accessing the content of their choice, so long as this does not infringe on the rights of others.
The internet has the ability to play a significant role in political movements, with social media serving as an important tool for the mass mobilization of protesters in many countries during the Arab Spring, despite governments’ efforts to thwart online freedom upon understanding its potential.
On January 27, 2011, during the Egyptian Revolution, Hosni Mubarak’s government decided to suspend the entire country’s internet access, following demonstrations in Cairo organized through social media. By this stage, however, this served only to further galvanize the protesters, and Mubarak was forced out of office just two weeks later.
In China, despite a high level of state control over the internet, some individuals there are still able to find ways of sharing their views online. Likewise, pornographic content will always be accessed by those determined enough, in spite of government regulations.
Many file sharing sites have been censored to a massive extent, yet still function through proxy and mirror sites. The average teenager can and will circumvent many government barriers online. Censorship is not only unethical but also does not even function effectively in this digital age, with technology constantly developing and evolving.
Why internet censorship matters to SFL
Taking a stand against internet censorship is extremely important to Students For Liberty. Censorship of any kind serves only to stifle open and rational debate. It is particularly dangerous when used as a tool for authoritarian governments to suppress dissenting views and avoid accountability. We support the principle of having an open marketplace of ideas. A free internet can go a long way towards promoting a freer world.