Censorship versus freedom of speech? The internet has made an already tricky issue even trickier. In its first decade the online world was a little like the Wild West, a place where anything went, legal or illegal. Some feel users have managed to self-police the online world very well so far. Others feel the net is still wide open to all manner of abuse and that strict controls are the way to go. So what does the future hold for internet censorship?
Illegal offline = illegal online
Not so long ago, the law didn’t seem to have much of an online reach. But things are changing fast. If it’s illegal offline in the real world, it makes logical sense for it to be outlawed online too. Witness the fate of people caught trolling. The antics of these online bullies have seen an increasing number of them imprisoned in recent years after their harassment has led to victims committing suicide. Also, the people who used social media to incite and spread unrest in the riots of early August 2011, many of whom were also imprisoned for their actions.
How do we enforce internet censorship?
It’s difficult to enforce censorship at the best of times, and even more of a challenge online where free speech is still the norm. And the lines are blurred one man’s meat is another’s poison, as the saying goes, and just because some people dislike an idea or theory or feel it’s inappropriate, it doesn’t mean it’s illegal or even immoral.
Politics and censorship
When allied with politics, censorship is often seen as a dangerously slippery slope. Different governments have their own agendas, which makes them far from impartial. In a political context, censorship can involve protecting the vulnerable from potential harm. But it can also mean suppressing information that only harms a government’s interests, not that of the population.
Some countries already limit their populations’ access to the internet, for example blocking social media sites. The Arab Spring is a good example of ordinary people using banned online media to spread the word about injustices. On the other hand, very few people would argue that child exploitation should continue online without any form of control.
Examples of online censorship
There are already some types of censorship in place. For example, the French and German governments both block content related to Nazism and Holocaust denial, and child pornography and hate speech are blocked in numerous countries across the globe.
Finding the right balance
On the whole it seems to be a matter of balance, considering people’s right to free speech and expression while protecting the victims when free speech goes too far and causes harm. Again, trolling is a good example, with online communities proving themselves capable of self-censoring their networks provided they’re given the right tools to do so.
The Internet Society research into internet censorship
In summer 2012 the Internet Society interviewed more than 10,000 users across twenty countries. When asked whether freedom of expression should be guaranteed on the internet, 86% somewhat or strongly agreed. However, 82% also agreed that the internet should be governed in some form to protect the community from harm. 71% agreed censorship should exist in some form online. And 74% of people surveyed agreed that increased government control of the internet would limit their freedom of expression.
Can the powers that be guarantee freedom of expression while keeping people safe? And what about the practicalities can it be done? It remains to be seen.
Written by Alexandra James, a blogger interested in social media trends, e-learning and technology in education. She provides advice on staying safe, informed and legal when online.