Image by Thomas Breher
For as long as the internet has been mainstream, some group or another has been trying to censor it. A couple of years ago, websites such as Wikipedia, Google and Craigslist protested against a potential Congress bill intending to “curb internet privacy” (PIPA, or Protect Intellectual Property Act). SOPA resulted in a bunch of sites being intentionally blacked out to show their disapproval of this law, and the Government backed down. But not for long. Every couple of months, the U.S Government—or the European Union, the United Nations or some other government body—will attempt to introduce laws to censor the internet, usually under the guise of helping us.
We have Bill Clinton to thank for the internet not being taxed and regulated back in the 1990s. According to White House archives from the Clinton administration (Bill, not Hill):
The Internet and electronic commerce are central to continued economic growth and prosperity in the United States and around the world…The U.S. has an aggressive agenda to ensure that the Internet continues to be an engine of economic prosperity in the U.S.
Beautiful. This hasn’t stopped multiple attempts to censor the internet, especially from websites and companies who have previously been against censorship of the web. Google—one of the many protestors against PIPA—has been mistrustful with their treatment of the personal data of private citizens. Google Docs recently locked out users from viewing their own files, after an AI associated with scanning people’s files for hate speech allegedly malfunctioned. Google says they’ve fixed the issue, but how are we sure this won’t happen again, and Google will just use “violating Terms and Conditions” as an excuse for censoring those they disagree with politically?
Twitter has faced a lot of backlash for giving verification ticks to alleged white supremacists and even neo-Nazis. There was a huge controversy—and many dye-in-the-wool Twitter users threatened to deactivate their accounts—when Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, was given the blue checkmark. Recently, Jason Kessler, alongside a slew of other Right-wing commentators, including Laura “SJWs slashed my car tires” Loomer, Richard Spencer, and others also lost their verified mark on the site. Twitter is free to do what they want, but the blue checkmark is not meant to be a sign of “the correct viewpoints”. As disagreeable and hateful as these aforementioned Twitter users may be, they should be influential enough to receive verified status. If this isn’t enough of a problem, Twitter has a huge censorship problem, and doesn’t seem to mind banning anyone who doesn’t agree with their politics. They’ve also introduced a “See more” section in their comments section, where anyone deemed politically incorrect is pushed, further censoring their comments from the general population.
Mozilla—the creator of Firefox, one of the most popular internet browsers—has taken censorship, under the guise of helping netizens, to a new level. Just like Twitter believes censoring disagreeable users will create a safer environment, Mozilla believes censoring the internet will make it better:
Mozilla’s already working on a few ideas, like Coral Project’s Talk Tool, which aims to reinvent the comments section for safer, smarter conversation.
The more we attempt to censor those we deem disagreeable, the more they will head underground onto the dark web, where we will be unable to monitor their behavior. This should be frightening news. For example, now that the Daily Stormer, a hateful white supremacist “news” site, has been effectively banned from the surface (normal) web, creator Andrew Anglin and other far-Right figures will now head to the dark web, where we will be unable to see their behavior out in the open, allowing it to thrive and potentially lead to more Charlottesvilles and for there to be more Heather Heyers.
The more companies attempt to censor the web, the more people will find ways to circumvent that. Mozilla’s latest program, Coral Project, uses a lot of PR speak (legalese, spin doctors, whatever you like to call it), but basically it’s about censoring the internet to help journalists. Here are their three “open-source projects”:
Ask – a form/gallery builder to collect, manage, and display user-generated contributions.
Talk – a discussion space that is highly customizable, and designed for safety.
Guides – methods to improve your online communities, whatever tools you use.
Improve your online communities? Designed for safety? At first glance, these may sound beautiful and useful (thanks William Morris!), but they’re actually about censoring websites to help the corporation, not the consumer. They are about keeping content “open” by filtering consumer responses. Notice how Coral Project’s About Us page glosses over the finer details of their “project”, instead telling us how they are about bringing journalists and the community together. Beware anything that just tells you in wishy-washy PR speak how amazing they are, without actually telling you what their shtick is.
Despite constantly telling us they are against censorship of the internet, so many companies seem to be pro-censorship. In a worrying age where the Government—regardless of political affiliation—seems to want unlimited access to our personal data, this is a worrying trend. It doesn’t matter if we have “nothing to hide”, we should retain access to our own private information, unless that information is out to harm the public (and not the shallow “definition” of harm the public like in the Google Docs fiasco). The more corporations attempt to censor our information, the more we as consumers will head elsewhere, and these corporation will be left wringing their hands wondering what they have done. If you censor on Twitter, consumers will head to Gab or HeartMob. If you censor websites, those content creators will head to the dark web, out of reach and left to propagate in an environment unable to be monitored. Netizens will always find a way.
Despite his many mistakes, Bill Clinton had the right idea when he said the internet should be free for everyone. While that many include having mildly disagreeable views on the same platform as you—and, yes, that means the occasional troll—that’s the price to pay for a free, open internet. No PR speak intended.