Censorship and Freedom of Speech Online


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One doesn’t have to spend much time at all on the internet to realize that censorship is present to some extent in nearly all online forums. Any platform which allows users to post original thoughts in the form of words, pictures, and videos, typically has a content policy that outlines what is acceptable and what is not acceptable on the platform. Additionally, some social media platforms or multiplayer games include a built-in filter, or at the very least an optional “explicit content” filter which acts as another form of censorship. Sometimes censorship is obviously necessary when considering the audience; for instance, in many online games geared toward children, such as Fortnite, the late Club Penguin, and Webkinz, the use of explicit language will result in a warning or possibly a ban of the account in question. However, some cases do arise where the decision to apply censorship is not so obvious. This paper will analyze the delicate balance between protecting freedom of speech and using censorship to regulate online forums, first reporting on the state of censorship on a worldwide scale and then addressing the ethical dilemma itself.

There are varying levels of online censorship present in the world today, ranging from almost no regulation, as in the United States, to extreme regulation, such as in China. Due to these differing levels of censorship, the repercussions for online actions also differ in severity. England is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, although as Americans we might still consider the law to be quite restrictive. In 2003, England passed the Communications Act which banned “online communication that would cause ‘annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.’” (Herzog) This act essentially made trolling on social media punishable by law. In subsequent years following this act, arrests have been steadily increasing. In 2016, London police detained and questioned 3,300 English citizens due to their online behavior. This law mainly relies upon users reporting each other for their perceived offenses. In their attempt to excise a tumor, which is hate speech and toxicity on social media, England has created a modern-day equivalent to medieval witch trials—one individual’s word is enough to condemn another individual, regardless of legal grounds. Despite this, is England’s policy on social media censorship a better alternative than rampant online toxicity?

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In this same vein of thought, the most extreme example of censorship in existence today can be found in the People’s Republic of China. Not only does the Chinese government regulate the content users post online, but they also regulate what content can be viewed by users. China has accomplished this through the implementation of a massive program nicknamed “The Great Firewall”. (O’Brien) Extremely popular and widely used social media platforms of western cultures, such as Instagram and Facebook, are completely banned in China. China has its own alternatives to these platforms, such as Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin which censor content in compliance with the Chinese government. (Pan) The remaining western platforms which are allowed in China are only accessible there because the companies relent to strict Chinese censorship in favor of gaining a lucrative relationship with Chinese citizens. Even large companies such as Google and Facebook are currently working on programs that would be viable in the Chinese marketplace—complete with built-in censorship tools. (Pan) Similarly, the online gaming marketplace has a particularly confounding dilemma on its hands presently. Blizzard, a well-known online multiplayer game company has begun to cave to Chinese demands for censoring online content, and by restricting content for Chinese users, Blizzard, by extension, also restricts the content of non-Chinese users due to the worldwide nature of their platform. In this instance, a tech company has foregone an established ethical standard upheld by a larger percentage of their user base to reach a wider demographic of users and thus increase profits. (Pan)

In September of 2019, China unveiled another of its censorship capabilities— “The Great Cannon”. This is the term used to describe China’s capability to “inject malicious JavaScript code into customer’s insecure requests”. (O’Brien) Using this digital weapon, China briefly disrupted LIHKG, the platform of choice for Hong Kong protestors. China silenced criticism of their government using online censorship. China claims that “within Chinese territory, the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty” (O’Brien), essentially asserting that they should be allowed to control the flow of internet traffic without exception within their borders. China’s goal in this endeavor seems to be the control of political feeling within their borders, rather than the protection of their citizen’s rights.

Though not government entities themselves, some social media companies have taken censorship into their own hands, largely due to political pressures placed on them. Instagram has recently unveiled a new policy that does not make explicit content, such as sexually suggestive material, discoverable on its “explore” tab. This led to outrage among the sex worker community on the platform—lack of discoverability was damaging the livelihood of many users. (Cook) Opposition to this new policy claims that Instagram’s decision was “plainly sexist”, but on the other hand, the policy made the platform more “family-friendly” and safer for other users. Another recent censorship controversy can be found on Facebook, where Zuckerberg is striving to cut off the flow of “fake news” seeping from his platform. Facebook has outright banned accounts that it has deemed as “dangerous”, such as the well-known, far-right spokesperson Alex Jones. (Lima) Although Facebook is in no way an authority on ethics, it has deemed itself worthy to decide who can voice their opinions and who cannot. Facebook does have a responsibility to maintain the reputation of their platform, so it is only natural for Zuckerberg to purge users that would reflect badly upon the platform.

The aforementioned cases all depict some form of censorship with varying degrees of severity and impact. They universally, however, are decisions made because they valued the resultant control and safety more than they valued free expression of ideas. To fully understand this balance, several concepts must be expounded upon. One goal of those advocating for online censorship is the elimination of “hate speech”. This term can be interpreted as the language that “undermines the public good, or makes the task of sustaining it much more difficult than it would otherwise be”. (Guiora) In the United States, laws exist which restrict the use of hate speech, although this term is a hotly debated issue, and not completely resolved, yet. When does an idea cross the line between critical and hateful? In the end, it should be determined in a court of law under the presiding government body. In 1969, the most influential speech protection case in American history, Brandenburg v. Ohio, determined that the government limitation of speech is restricted to language that “promotes imminent harm” or “there is a high likelihood that the speech will result in listeners participating in illegal actions”. Additionally, direct threats which promise bodily harm or death are prohibited. (Guiora) When applied to the sphere of technology, this law still holds. If the content posted violates any of these limitations, it should certainly be censored. In the case of English attempts to censor content on social media, their law closely resembles the language of United States law—the only difference is that they are enforcing the law with diminutive impunity. In Facebook’s attempt to regulate content on their platform, they have taken the law into their own hands, appointing themselves as the judge and jury to decide what “hate speech” is on their platform.

Another type of content restriction is the concept of “moderation”, which is the equal enforcement of explicitly stated community guidelines. Reddit is one such technological archetype of this model of censorship. Reddit organizes itself into a constantly expanding collection of subreddits, each one differing in topic, tone, and audience. Redditors can choose to join any subreddit at all but must agree to community guidelines that may restrict certain words or topics from being used on the subreddit. The establishment of rules, and the user’s subsequent agreement, is a progressive form of self-moderation. (Gibson) In Reddit’s case, users willingly join subreddits with full knowledge and acceptance of the guidelines, and moderators enforce those guidelines. In China’s case, however, moderation of internet activity is not a universally agreed-upon set of community guidelines. Due to the aggressive nature of the Chinese government’s imposition of content restriction, there is significant pushback from users who disagree with China’s policies. Additionally, Instagram’s attempt to moderate sexual content has also resulted in pushback for similar reasons, mainly due to the “vague” nature of the ban. (Cook) Thus, for moderation to be an effective form of online censorship, users must agree with carefully laid, explicit guidelines.

Having expanded upon the species of censorship present today, now the question remains of who is in the right—champions of free speech or proponents of censorship? The current world leader on censorship of online speech is the European Union. Their efforts to police the internet could “remove hateful conduct and violent terrorist content”, among other notable benefits. (Citron) If the ideas which result in terrorist attacks, bombings, and ISIS recruitment cannot spread online, then these outcomes will be reduced as a result. Is the potential for this ideal scenario enough to outweigh the detrimental effects on freedom of speech? Increased regulation and censorship could also result in “worldwide removal of websites criticizing political candidates” and “global suspension of civil rights activists’ Facebook profiles.” (Citron)

Opposition to censorship argues that the ambiguity of the law, combined with the common deletion practice present today in tech companies, would result in a world without freedom of expression online. Because much of the law is ambiguous in its definition of hate speech or inciteful speech, the legitimate political debate could potentially be labeled as unlawful. (Citron) This restriction would thus stifle civil engagement and exacerbate civil disobedience. Secondly, the most common reaction of companies seeking to address instances of reported abuse is to simply remove the offending material. The European Union pressures tech companies to regulate their own content, and if “speech inciting violence or hatred against protected groups” is found, it must be removed within twenty-four hours. Due to the large quantity of data that is uploaded daily on many platforms, the companies in question do not have sufficient time to carefully evaluate the severity of each offense. The timeframe with which this must be accomplished likely results in the wrongful deletion of online material in bulk. Thus, mass deletion of digital materials would not be so unfathomable, as online free speech activists would argue.

Proponents of censorship, conversely, see it as a necessary evil to preserve the lawfulness and civility of online discourse. The benefits outweigh the detriments of censorship. Through censoring digital speech and moderating content in online forums, the internet will see a significant decrease in hate speech, inciteful language, and criminal acts. Many experts believe that the future of internet regulation will improve with the use of artificial intelligence, increased oversight, and community moderation. (Rainie) These same experts do recognize that surveillance and polarization will become more prevalent, and freedom of speech will decline, due to these methods of policing the internet, but overall the outcome will be worth it. With an increasingly interconnected world, the actions of one individual can impact exponentially more viewers than was previously possible before the age of social media. Pro-censorship individuals thus argue that because of the vast, impactful nature of the internet, content must be regulated.

Freedom of speech is indubitably an extremely valuable right, upheld by most of the western world. However, governing authorities are collectively becoming increasingly willing to diminish certain rights for the betterment of society. In an ideal world, there would be a clear line that distinguishes the exercise of free speech from unlawful speech, but our world is not so black and white. There will always be a gray area. As citizens of the internet, we must understand the balance struck here and be conscious of the actions we take online.

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