Internet censorship is a legal process which allows governments, institutions, and even some private organizations the ability to restrict access to specific online content items or websites from individuals. This process can take many forms. It may take place when a law is issued by the government, through societal regulation, or even when someone purposely edits content in a way that prevents others from accessing it.
One common form of Internet censorship and involves ISP objections. Websites like the pirate Bay are often blocked by Internet service providers because of the content that users find. Although sites like this one mentioned above carry copyright-protected content that could be illegal to download, blocking someone’s access to the site without their consent is censorship.
When we discuss the idea of free speech, there is an element in that conversation which says “morally correct” ideas are what we were talking about with this subject. Suggestions that go against societal norms, or even against a basic sense of decency, are excluded from this conversation – but they shouldn’t be if speech is free.
Should we keep online communities in a structure that makes the majority of people comfortable? Or does it deserve to create its own set of rules that governs how individuals treat one another? These issues and more are covered under the Internet censorship pros and cons found below.
List of the Pros of Internet Censorship
1. Internet censorship would reduce the amount of false information that is available.
Although we see the Internet as a place where everyone can have the chance to visit sites or speak their minds, it turns out that a lot of what happens online is actually fake. Research studies published in 2018 suggest that less than 60% of the traffic found online is human. That number can be significantly lower in some years as well. In 2013, YouTube found that over half of this traffic were just bots masquerading as people.
2. Internet censorship could have a positive role for individual security.
The dark web is a place where stolen data can find lucrative prices. Although not everything there is illegal, it is easier to find information about others that can lead to identity theft or worse. Experian published a report in 2018 about how much specific items of personal identity are worth to thieves in this Internet space. Here are some of their findings.
• The price of a valid Social Security number is $1.
• Thieves will pay up to $1,000 for accurate medical records.
• Passports from the United States sell for up to $2,000.
• Your driver’s license or loyalty accounts are worth $20 each.
Internet censorship would give law enforcement an opportunity to stop these behaviors without restricting access to other people.
3. Internet censorship could provide a boost to national security provisions as well.
Anyone who says that it is possible to stop hackers does not fully understand the technology is involved. Internet censorship will not stop this behavior. What it can do is provide society with a list of laws, regulations, and penalties to expect when a violation occurs. When we create the possibility of being able to set an example for what happens when rules are broken, then it creates a detrimental effect on others who might be considering a similar behavior.
4. Internet censorship could place limits on human trafficking activities.
The dark web is a place for more than just thieves. You can find links that take you to sites where you can purchase illicit drugs, download child pornography, access hate literature, getting involved with sex trafficking, and much worse. Internet censorship would give local authorities a way to prevent distribution of these materials when they are discovered instead of working from a reactive process.
5. Internet censorship offers us an opportunity to create limits that are based on common sense.
There are elements of the Internet which don’t have to be on the dark web to be disturbing for some individuals. Online posts in recent years have become a way to create infamy for people who are trying to leave this world with guns blazing – literally. A Facebook Live video which showed the murder of 74-year-old Robert Godwin, Sr. was watched at least 1.6 million times before it became unavailable. The gruesome footage was live for at least three hours before the video was taken down.
It is a global phenomenon. Three men were arrested for sexual assault when they streamed the activity life to a private Facebook group. The video was disabled in 23 minutes, but it still made an impact on those who got to see it. You can literally get 15 minutes of infamy with technology today. Internet censorship could help to put a stop to it.
6. Internet censorship allows us to operate in a global world.
Tech companies often comply with borders that appear to be a method of Internet censorship because of their legal responsibilities as an international company. These organizations must go to great lengths to comply with local laws so that they can continue their global operations. Egypt passed a law in 2017 which banned any website that was deemed to threaten national security. There are rules about what can be posted in messaging apps. It may create an Internet which feels like it has less freedom, but it also creates an opportunity to expose additional cultures to ideas that don’t include censorship.
List of the Cons of Internet Censorship
1. Internet censorship gives one group of people power over another.
The primary disadvantage with the idea of Internet censorship is that someone or a specific group must be given power over others to filter what becomes accessible for the average person. Even if someone with “correct” morals and ethics were put in charge of this project, then who would oversee their activities? And then who would oversee the overseer? We eventually get to a level where someone or an organization has responsibility for this process without a requirement to report to someone else. Whoever would have that role would be the supreme position to control global information.
2. Internet censorship shifts accountability.
When a government or another entity declares what is permissible for someone to see online, then any responsibility for personal decisions is no longer present in that society. People could justify their actions because no one was telling them to stop. When someone is willing to let go of that control, it becomes easier to let others rule over additional areas of their lives as well.
3. Internet censorship is a costly process.
Research published by Brookings in 2015 found that the countries who practice Internet censorship spend about $2.5 billion each year on this activity. When Egypt decided to cut connectivity for users within their borders, the cost was roughly $100 million that had to come from a different budget line. Then there are the positive economic benefits of broadband access to consider, which can total up to $90 billion per year for developed societies. Who is going to pay for these costs? The consumers who are being restricted from the Internet in the first place.
4. Internet censorship prevents the flow of information.
Information published by the World Economic Forum found that one in four people on the Internet today are living in a country where Internet censorship is common. Roughly 40 governments processed criminal charges against individuals because of their conduct that was tracked online. In the nations where censorship is at its highest levels, a simple action that many people take for granted, liking a post on social media, is enough for an arrest warrant to be signed.
This issue is more than a decade old when bloggers took to the Internet to speak out against the repressive governments. The Guardian reported in 2008 that the average sentence handed out to someone for speaking their mind online was 15 months.
5. Internet censorship limits economic opportunities.
When a government passes legislation that permits Internet censorship, then everyone must go through an approval process to have their content published. That means entrepreneurs would need to present their ideas before government officials without a guarantee that they could start to build a business. Corporations would be forced to seek out permission to have their website become available to the general public. In extreme circumstances, individuals would have their social media profiles constantly examined by law enforcement to ensure they were complying with local laws.
In the past, Internet censorship problems involved governments that were placing filtering mechanisms online to prevent access. Today’s primary threat is a company located in Silicon Valley who is willing to listen to the takedown requests of foreign governments. Netflix recently joined this trend when they took down an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s show at the request of Saudi Arabia.
6. Internet censorship leads to lower levels of intelligence.
When people are exposed to a new idea for long enough, then it begins to feel normal to them. There is a desensitization process which eventually allows someone to accept their circumstances when they normally would not. We already see this effect in the United States with the numerous stories of gun violence that occur. Repetitive information, no matter how negative it may be, will eventually cause society to become numb. If we permit Internet censorship to continue as it is today, then one day the new normal will be a lack of freedom online instead of what we have right now.
7. Internet censorship is a restriction of free speech.
The Supreme Court of the United States constantly reaffirms that hate speech is a protected item under the constitutional provisions of free speech. Someone can attack a group or person verbally based on their attributes, which might include race, national origin, gender identity, spiritual identity, or ethnic origin. Some people direct hate speech toward individuals with disabilities. If you look at the average Facebook comment chain about politics, you’ll see a lot of hate speech there too.
As much as we would like to take a common-sense approach to censoring this type of speech, Internet censorship creates a precedent where anyone who becomes offended by anything could petition for damages because of a comment that is left. There are categories which are not protected, such as a call from violence against people or groups, but once we give someone power over one item, then how long is it before we do so over others too?
8. Internet censorship reduces the economic impact of online communities.
Once we begin to declare that specific items are good and others are bad, then we start creating an influence that shifts the economics of the society. Imagine the Internet being a place where a company can no longer promote itself because their competitor files a complaint that says those activities violate their rights. That is a real possibility when discussing Internet censorship because the people who make the laws tend to be influenced by the groups which make the most money in society.
9. Internet censorship is a way to maintain social control.
When Saudi Arabia gave Netflix a takedown request, it was a symptom of a darker disease. The laws, cultural norms, institutional processes, and various other mechanisms involved in that society help to create high levels of social control. Internet censorship is ultimately less about what data a government or entity decides is “inappropriate” for consumption and more about how a powerful group wants to keep people thinking, acting, and living in specific ways. When the people who pull the strings in society are able to influence perceptions at the individual level, then it is easier for them to stay in power because they are maintaining social control.
These pros and cons of Internet censorship give us a preview of the world where information would become a currency that only a privileged few could own. There are times when it might make sense to limit access to harmful content. Once this process is given life, then it can also be used for selfish purposes. Despite the potential harm that hate speech can provide, the overwhelming positive benefits that are derived from free access to data outweighs most of the costs that we pay for it every day.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.