In this post, I will be writing about internet censorship. We will be exploring these issues: Is the Internet really free? If it isn’t then there is someone that censors the Internet. If so, what are the reasons in doing so? Why should we even have internet censorship? Let’s explore deeper.
When the internet was first set up, one of the values it had was the fact that the online platform was a place where people could be free from content filtration and know and share almost anything they wanted without any sort of interference or diluting of information.
Firstly, the idea that the Internet is free is actually not entirely true. The Internet was supposed to blow open barriers and tear down walls, which initially it did. However, through the years, there have been more and more elements of online censorship coming to light. We have come across cases like China’s Great Firewall, banning of Facebook and Twitter in some countries. In severe cases, shutting down sites like WikiLeaks is also an attack on freedom of expression. Yet there are people who manage to bypass this system in some instances by checking for loopholes.
So now we know that there is censorship online, then what are the arguments for and against online censorship?
Arguments for censorship
Generally those who endorse censorship say that it is to protect minors from access to harmful and objectionable material. This would include profanity, sexual content and pornography.
Internet censorship has many benefits such as censorship of pornographic material prevents children’s minds from being corrupted. People are prevented from learning things that could harm them and others. Just as laws put in place in our society, religious conflicts can be avoided by the censorship of material deemed insulting or offensive to a particular religious community, especially in multi-religious and multi-racial societies. Censorship is necessary to preserve the secrets of a nation, such as sensitive military information which if not protected can put the nation’s security and its citizens at potential risks. It protects the privacy of people. Hence online censoring in such instances serves a useful purpose. A recently published study on Internet censorship in Thailand confirms the trend of blocking websites by citing threats to national security. Almost 74,686 of URLs have been blocked since late 2007 in Thailand, revealed the report, ‘Control and Censorship of Online Media through the Use of Laws and the Imposition of Thai State Policies’.
Using Act Utilitarian Theory, if people would be free to do as they please such as passing insensitive comments or criticising someone, making fun of religion, online crimes will rise. There would then be a greater need for the government, police and the relevant authorities to step in. For example, people have been arrested and condemned for posting negative remarks on social networking sites or blogs. This would result in greater inconvenience for users as monitoring would increase and also government revenue would have to be spent for these problems, which would mean channelling of funds for other purposes like improving public places and providing basic welfare needs to needy citizens would be reduced, leading to a decrease in the quality of life for the people. This would result in an overall unhappiness than happiness to all. Thus, online censorship should be put in place to prevent these issues from occurring.
Using Kantian Theory, without internet censorship people may commit acts that would cause others to be treated as means to an end rather than the end itself. This would go against Kantian’s fundamentals. Using anonymously abusing others online as an example, we are treating others as means to an end. Very often, we could just be venting our anger or frustration that we face in real life on someone we may or may not know in the virtual world. This would mean we are using the person without his/her wishes, as we are using them to achieve our goal- make ourselves feel better. If we were to establish that it is alright to treat others in such a manner online and this rule that “it is alright to anonymously abuse others online” were to be universalised, then there would be no respect for each other. Wouldn’t there be a logical contradiction as we were taught to have respect for each other? Although some may argue that these are 2 different worlds- virtual and real world and rules in reality cannot be used to explain those in virtual world, with the advent of technology and the fact that we are constantly using it, it is difficult to keep the virtual and real world separate from each other.
Hence using Act Utilitarianism and Kantianism will help to explain that internet censorship is ethically right.
Arguments against censorship
By censoring the internet, it becomes more difficult to teach and educate children and teenagers about the potential dangers, which they could have possibly known about when correctly taught. This may result in long term risks. If you hide something from people they will become extra curious about it and want to find out even more. Withholding of information will lead to ignorance in the society. We wouldn’t want our future generation to be ignorant, would we? Freedom of speech is compromised and may intrude on the privacy of a person. It prevents the free flow of ideas. We have seen cases of censorship being misused in the past. Without proper tools for online censorship, we may end up blocking legitimate criticism, which would only do more harm than good. Finally, people have a right to know what is going on and know about the full picture.
Using Social Contract and Rights Theory, since we have the right to freedom of opinion and expression and many of those who oppose to online censorship also state this as it is a universally declared human right, hence there should not be censorship online.
Throughout the world, these values are codified into the laws of many countries and are included in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Hence this explains that internet censorship is ethically wrong.
Using internet censorship as a tool
From the above arguments put forth, internet censorship is a double-edged sword. Just like it has its benefits, there are disadvantages to it. If not used correctly, online censorship could bring about even more disastrous scenarios.
In just two examples of internet censorship gone wrong, 92,000 innocent websites lost business and possibly also their good reputation. Internet censorship if not carried out properly is a bad thing and can affect innocent websites and cause loss of business to their owners.
On 17th February 2011, RT reported that US had mistakenly shut down 84,000 websites, wrongfully accused of having links to child pornography during a child porn raid. Unfortunately, in the process, they also mistakenly seized a large DNS service provider. However, this provider had no domains connected to child pornography. It took approximately 3 days to get the problem rectified. They not only lost revenue, but also risk losing their reputations as legitimate websites.
On 2 March 2012, RT reported on a similar situation in Denmark – also connected with child pornography. Danish visitors to Facebook and Google received notifications that the websites were banned, among many others. With a few misguided mouse clicks, police were able to blacklist 8,000 websites instantly. This shows how harmful this powerful tool can be if misused.
To summarise, since we cannot entirely agree whether internet should or should not be censored, then we can evaluate to what extent internet should be censored. As mentioned earlier, we could decide on what types of objectionable material should be blocked. No matter how we argue for or against online censorship we must all understand that there has to be a certain common understanding and possibly a brief code of conduct for netizens so that there can be mutual respect for all. Of course, if the internet is censored too much, there are ways to get around the censorship for people who know well enough.
I hope by now we have a better understanding of the issue at hand and how to deal with it. Till the next post, remember that when censorship protects people from harm, it can be good and one needs to use it wisely. We can decide what the internet will be like. In fact as per the online community response to a poll about ‘Does the Internet need censorship?’ 89% of the members replied no.
So what is your choice? To censor the internet or not to censor?