In an Age Where the Internet is a Universal Platform, Can We Still Be Censored?

In our civilised modern world, where the internet offers us a universal public platform, it sometimes seems that we’re able to speak more freely than ever before. We’re exposed to such a wide variety of views on social media, ranging across every aspect of the political spectrum. We see the most broad-minded and generous-hearted scions of our society, and we also see the most sexist, racist, bigoted, and cruel expressing their opinions. Their views sit side by side on our news feeds, apparently uncensored and open to debate.

But are we really as free as we like to think? Most of us exercise censorship to some degree, if only on a personal level. We filter our thoughts into acceptable statements, often keeping to ourselves the views that we feel would cause undue controversy.

We are not alone in this: governments, too, censor information on the grounds of political, moral, and religious reasoning. All around the world, they justify themselves based on the rationale of protecting society. In some instances, this is inarguably positive for all of us; it stops hate speech from permeating our communities, and bars child pornography and indecent images from finding their way onto our internet screens.

Largely, this is done by controlling our media. As free as we think we are, what we see on the internet is filtered, censored, to control the messages that are broadcast. Here, we take a look at the continued prevalence of censorship, and the way that it impacts our society.

An Age of Freedom

In the 20th century, most of the civilised world likes to see ourselves as free. We consign censorship to history, equating it with the Mary Whitehouse-esque figures of the 60s and 70s; outraged house wives and gentleman with stiff upper lips, who felt that what we saw in the media should be heavily filtered for our own goods. We forget that, even today, news editors are issued with D-notices to protect national security, and that what can be said onscreen is heavily controlled.

Yet surely the internet stands as a bastion of pure freedom? It allows us to publish and read any information that we desire, wherever we are in the world. So has this not, in itself, killed censorship in the true sense of the word?

In the eyes of some, the answer is ‘yes’. We only have to look at WikiLeaks to see information that should have been censored under traditional censorship rules. Exposing both news leaks and classified information, it has been denounced as detrimental to national security, yet still it remains.

And it is not only government censorship that has been thwarted. Salacious stories about celebrities are ten a penny online, and multiple super injunctions imposed by the courts have been broken through the medium of the internet. Once out, they spread so quickly that shutting down the original source becomes an impotent gesture, achieving nothing in the attempt to stop such information from becoming known to the rest of the world. Even where attempts have been made to prosecute the breakers of these bans directly, tracing the original source has frequently proved impossible, making any attempts at litigation futile.

Yet not all governments have passively accepted this new reality…

Seizing Control of Technology

Within western society, the impact of the internet on censorship is undeniable, and the thought of the government actively intervening by seizing control of technology is unthinkable.

Not so elsewhere. It is common knowledge that during the Arab Spring of 2011, the Egyptian government was proactive in preventing protestors from uploading information to social media. Despite many trying to use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to justify and explain their motives, they found themselves blocked from doing so. When these claims were put forth, Egypt’s government was quick to deny them, yet confirmation soon came from a reliable source: monitoring agencies.

Thus, we have to look at the issue of censorship from all angles, and when we do, we see that it still stands. The internet has opened our eyes to many things, undoubtedly, and given us an unparalleled platform for sharing our views, but it does not always provide us with a clear picture. There are those who can and do filter what we see, and for as long as such a power remains, we continue to perceive the world only through a painted looking glass.