A Syrian activist chanting in the streets of the city of Hama responds peacefully when his opinion on state coercion and censorship is asked; “People’s opinions are repressed so long that we forgot to articulate ourselves sensibly so we took the streets.” Another demonstrator from 6000 miles away, surprisingly made a similar comment; “we have been tranquilized by the deceits of the Wall Street -that its doings are for everyone’s favor- so long that it took some time figure out that 99 percent of the people suffered because of their greediness. But no more.”
Censorship is a worldwide phenomenon especially in today’s cyber space where information becomes unimaginably easy to access. Thanks to the international network, people can gather every bit of information on any topic which they once did not even know that it existed. This naturally leads to several concerns particularly for governments. Even though, majority of netizens acknowledges racism, violence and national security as common excuses for censorship, there are still some questions that we struggle to answer: Who controls the Internet content? Do smarter ways of censor legitimizes the censorship? Is censorship peculiar to authoritarian regimes?
People are led to believe that authoritarian regimes are more inclined to limit the flow of information. The latest article published by the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings (Howard, Agarwal, Hussain, Issues in Technology Innovation, No.13), however, presents different findings. It shows that among the reported censorship incidents since 1995, 235 of them took place in democratic countries whereas 317 of them in authoritarian countries. The gap between “democratic” and “non-democratic” states are not paramount. Furthermore, according to authors, “overall more democracies participate in network interventions than authoritarian regimes [...]” These interventions vary from targeting sub-networks (closing web-sites), inquiring individuals (arrests), pressuring ISPs to shutting down full networks. The article also suggests that elected governments prefer to put pressure on ISPs rather than shutting down networks altogether which is preferred by authoritarian regimes.
Dictators vs. Elected
This usually is true. During the recent unrest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), many MENA states desperately tried to choke off information flow among protestors as well as with the rest of the world. For instance, causing negative repercussions, Mubarak, Egypt’s former ruler, pulled the plug in the last week of January 2011. Middle-class Egyptians who were eager to learn what was going on out there, took to the streets and when they found out, they eventually joined the protestors. Similarly, after the 2009 election in Iran, protests which began due to the allegations of rigged elections were intensified after government’s decision to ban social networking web-sites.
Democracies are, on the other hand, usually employs arm-twisting methods to force auto-censorship. The Wikileaks incident is a good example in this regard. During the exposure of state documents, U.S. Government intimidate (publicly or underhandedly) not only ISPs but also other companies providing services to the Wikileaks such as Visa, Paypal etc. which in turn to a large extent became successful. This was not the first case in U.S. Government's record. In March 2008, U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control published a “black list” based on the Trading with the Enemy Act, which actually prohibited U.S. companies from doing business with some web sites. The list caused private domain name registrars to disable domain names appearing in the document eliminating the said companies from the U.S. market without direct government intervention.
Although it does not legitimize censorship, this really is a smarter way than banning websites or shutting down networks. In doing so, governments -U.S. in this case- make an indirectly intervention to “undesired” content with relatively small risk. Moreover, in some cases, companies, on their own, refuse to sell products or provide services to firms having censorship potential. For instance two years ago, Facebook closed a group discussing 3rd Intifada due to violation of terms namely “stirring violence”.
But how could we separate the government-driven auto-censorship from profit-driven one? This brings us to first question; who controls the internet content?
Recent developments with regard to the protests in Wall Street presents the other side of the story. Yahoo, one of internet’s biggest portals, is now accused
of blocking e-mails due to “suspicious activity” originating from a website affiliated with OccupyWallStreet protests. (while other right-leaning activist web sites such as americansforprosperity.org and teapartypatriots.org were not) Even though, the web giant apologized and claimed that as an accident, it was remarkably similar to egyptian censorship methods. Yahoo’s previous record on censorship also raises further doubts. The company, for some time now, has been in cooperation with the Chinese government in censoring search results. It even helped Chinese government to identify several dissidents of the government who were sentenced to jail for various reasons . Furthermore, its advertising revenue surely indicates that company has a lot to lose if and when a possible conflict occurs with Wall Street. As of January 2010, Yahoo is at the top in online display advertising with its 17 percent market share which is remarkable, taking Microsoft's (number two) 11 percent share into account.
Roman censors might be once decent officers in their time. Their aim might well be the greater good indeed. But in a world where 65 percent of the total wealth is controlled by only 14 percent of the planet’s population, it is difficult speak of censorship with good moral fiber.
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