When only certain people are privy to information, what changes about how people interact? When, if ever, is censorship a necessary evil, and what are the results of totally free speech?
As democracies take over the world, free speech is universally seen as a bedrock human right. However, while there’s been a healthy debate about freedom of information for centuries, nobody on either side could have predicted the internet.
Online data has recently emerged as a crucial battleground in the question of exactly how free speech should be.
From SOPA and PIPA to the net neutrality debate, to the continuing problem of fake news, to the eternal problem of how much information about yourself you should make available online, questions of internet censorship are not going away anytime soon.
In this article, we’ll break down a few of the most common arguments for and against censorship of information online, and see what happens when they collide with reality.
What is Internet Censorship?
The exact nature of internet censorship is hard to pin down because so many different entities can be the censors.
We typically think of governments when we hear the phrase, but it can also be done by corporations, smaller entities, or even individuals–think of the content controls or “net nannies” your parents or schools might have placed on your browser to ensure you only viewed the content they wanted.
The censorship debate kicked into high gear when access to the World Wide Web became publicly available, simply because the internet is so much harder to regulate than any previous source of information.
In 1993, an article in Time magazine quoted internet developer John Gilmore as saying, “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” meaning that the private owners and users of the web are simply too creative as a whole to be pinned down for long.
However, nearly two decades later, a 2011 report by the Oxford Internet Institute warned that “freedom can be eroded unintentionally as various actors strategically pursue their own diverse array of objectives…freedom of expression is not an inevitable outcome of technological innovation.”
Methods of censorship are as varied as the many ways to get something onto the internet in the first place. Companies produce filters that any institution can use to block IP addresses, URLs, or instances of specific content.
Governments can impose censorship by throttling download speeds or by launching DDoS attacks–though individuals are perfectly capable of those as well.
Censorship does not have to be technical. Almost every major website, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia, maintains the authority to deny access to certain pages or users for violations.
Terms of service usually state what constitutes a “violation,” but the site itself retains the ultimate authority to define them.
National governments can use similar laws to good or evil effect: to ban harmful information like exploitative pornography, but also to stifle dissent.
As an arms race continues between those who want to regulate expression the internet and those who want to use it to its full potential, it seems increasingly clear the argument will be decided–if it ever can be truly settled–by the public will.
What does that mean for you?
Every day, it becomes more important to have a strong handle on the many facets of this debate. So let’s get started.
The Pros and Cons of Internet Censorship
1. Harmful speech
Governments, corporations, and smaller-scale authorities can use censorship tools to keep internet users from encountering cyberbullying or hate speech.
There is no reason to allow the proliferation of speech that has no social value and is in many cases specifically intended to offend, start fights, and cause damage. As stated above, internet content providers already maintain terms of service agreements, which all their user's sign.
And while the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in numerous cases that the First Amendment does not make exceptions for hate speech, legal interpretation is constantly evolving.
Furthermore, people censored this way may be removed from popular platforms, but will still find other ways to make their voices heard–just in places, vulnerable groups will be less likely to stumble across them accidentally.
Those with the authority to regulate online communication should not have the sole right to determine what constitutes harmful speech. The risk is too high that a repressive entity will decide speaking against it at all must be hate speech. Current U.S. law is clear: however we feel about what people say, they have a right to say it.
Banning agitators from sites like Twitter and YouTube only adds fuel to their fire. It’s better to let them speak publicly, where their harmful ideas can be refuted, rather than banishing them to echo chambers.
2. Fake News
Misleading, poorly-researched, or outright false news reached a critical mass during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Between August and November of that year, over 3.7 million people engaged on Facebook with just five demonstrably false news stories. Authorities could step in to ensure only reliable sources are able to get their news to the masses.
A well-informed public is crucial to a functioning democracy since all government decisions are ultimately decided based on the people’s votes. Letting fake news proliferate might lead to a misinformed voting base or large numbers of voters who check out entirely.
Fake news can even constitute hate speech if it inflames tensions against certain social groups. Moreover, the sites such as Facebook where fake news is most often shared have a responsibility to keep it from spreading.
Similar to point #1 above, giving authorities the power to decide what news is “fake” would be allowing them too much power. One need only look at President Trump’s habit of labeling any media he disagrees with as “fake news” to see how one could take this power too far.
The responsibility for detecting false stories lies with consumers, who should educate themselves on how to fact-check and spot falsehoods.
3. Inappropriate content for children
On the internet, there are very few barriers erected around age-inappropriate content. Children could easily stumble on violent images or pornography by mistake.
Some parents and caregivers believe they have a responsibility to ensure children use the web safely, one way is to set up parental controls and use a VPN to control what information others can see about them online.
It’s up to every parent or guardian to decide how they want to raise their child. Young children are more plugged into the internet than ever–wanting them to have positive experiences can hardly be compared to governments stifling dissent. However they choose to use them, it’s important for caregivers to have the tools to filter the content they want.
Children are ingenious, and often more internet-savvy than their parents. If they want to view age-inappropriate content, they will. Instead of trying to keep them from finding anything that might scar them, parents should explain to them why certain things aren’t suitable, respecting the child’s intelligence without attempting an end-run around them.
The internet is a transformative technology, both for good and for ill. In addition to freeing information, it provides avenues where criminal activity can take place without fear of detection.
2017’s internet crime report from the FBI lists compromised e-mail accounts as responsible for the most property damage, followed by confidence frauds and non-payment/non-delivery frauds. Identity theft, human trafficking, and drug sales have also been reported in “dark” parts of the web.
Granting censorship powers to governments, and creating software tools to help them, will allow them to choke off the use of the internet for harmful criminal activities.
While trafficking in humans and drugs did not begin with the internet, technology makes them much easier, and identity theft makes us all less secure. Big Data analytics have been proven to reduce criminals’ ability to hide on the dark web.
Censorship with the goal of preventing crime hurts more than it helps. While criminals may be prevented from remaining concealed using the dark web, law-abiding citizens will suffer from loss of privacy.
If law enforcement would not be allowed to gather information in the real world without a warrant, they shouldn’t be allowed to do it online.
5. Political Dissent
The World Economic Forum, which considers internet access to be a human right, states that 27 percent of users live under governments that have arrested citizens for their actions on the internet.
How does this fact impact arguments about whether or not governments should be given regulatory powers over the internet?
Internet security affects national security. As the 2016 presidential election in the United States showed, attacks on cyber-resources can seriously impact a nation’s policies and decisions. A government should have the power to prosecute actions taken by citizens on the internet if those actions are a security risk.
Once again, who watches the watchmen? Authorities free to prosecute people for the information they share are authorities that can control what information its citizens see.
This is an important step toward dictatorship. National security is important, but it’s not worth trading liberty for.
Among all its other functions, the internet represents an enormous chunk of the global economy, and the United States is no exception. A report from Brookings states that countries spent $2.4 billion in lost income shutting down the internet in 2015 alone.
However, there are many economic reasons a government might want to intervene in online traffic, both positive and negative.
Government regulations might be needed to level the playing field. In a free-market economy, this is nothing new; authorities intervene in lots of industries to ensure commerce continues to benefit as many people as possible.
With the recent repeal of net neutrality regulations, the internet is in danger of becoming so free that it actually becomes more stifled. Throttling by companies that horde capital also makes the internet less attractive as an entrepreneurial space.
The $2.4 billion figure alone is enough to prove that this regulatory power is a bad idea. The cost would likely be borne by taxpayers. Why force them to pay for their own disenfranchisement?
The arguments over what powers law enforcement should have on the internet are not likely to resolve any time soon. As long as technology advances, so too will debates about how to behave ethically in the world it changes.
However, what won’t change is that staying well-informed is crucial to making sound policy about how the internet is used.
What powers do you think the government should have to censor the internet? We want to hear from you in the comments below