Government Internet Censorship

Abstract 

The purpose of this research paper is to assess the place of governments in controlling the Internet content. The  research method is literature review. The literature on Internet censorship is reviewed, about the various aspects of censorship, its examples in many world countries including in Muslim countries, and on the complex issues such as globalization, cultural hegemony, and control of information. It is argued that only some types of the Internet content cause harm to society, such as pornography, fraudulent information, and the information compromising the private reputation and the people living in repressive authoritarian counties. It is found that the majority of  Internet content brings positive outcomes to people in many countries. Therefore the Internet censorship should be limited. The governments, instead of more censorship, should cooperate with their citizens, allow for individual sensorship and choices, and share the information about what they do to protect people.  

Government Internet Censorship

Introduction: 

In the content of globalization and fast access to information, it is not always clear  whether the governments should control the Internet content and what kind of content should be censored, reaching the population over the Internet. Currently many governments block specific websites on the internet, for a variety of reasons.  The governments can choose to control what the population views, upholding proper ethics and at the same time not intruding on the privacy of their civilians, for example to censor illegal activities and acts of indecency. As a Saudi, I face certain obstacles trying to express my opinions because the Saudi government does not allow complete freedom of speech in order to limit the stability threats. It means that there are obstacles to peoples’ freedom of expression in this country (and other countries). This research paper is structured into several sections, each addressing a certain aspect of Internet censorship. Internet censorship is defined as state-sponsored actions that restrict Internet-based communications and information, and the mechanism to forbid certain websites (Schäbler and Stenberg, 2004).  The paper argues that there are some types of Internet content which cause harm to society and that this content should be censored; however, most content is beneficial and the citizens should be granted the freedom of expression of their views on how the government is operating towards their protection.

1. The context for the censorship by government

1.1. Community versus government censorship

During the introductory phases of the internet, Murdoch & Roberts (2013) and Bitso (2014), explain how that the internet did not have any governmental interference on content reaching their citizens; it was controlled by community members who would impose norms and ban anyone from accessing their network if these norms were not followed. This created a very large network of free exchange of information on a global scale (Khanna, Dhingra, & Choudhary, 2013). Due to these reasons the governments felt the need to take action, since it would have influences on the citizens, possibly in a negative way. As stated by Bauml (2011), “by the 1990s, there was a general concern that the challenges the internet presented to governing bodies would ultimately diminish the relevance of the nation-state all together”. Governments around the world felt it was necessary to take control over the viewership of certain content, that would impose pressure on their regimes. Once the government had the authority to monitor what was being posted on the internet, it became its responsibility to protect their citizens by blocking the hubs that would lead to undesirable influence on the community.

1.2. The government’s protection against harmful content 

According to Bitso (2014), many other reasons exist to filter content over the internet such as: political repression, religious controls, combating terrorism and cyber anarchy, and protection of copyrighted property. The purposes of censoring these kinds of substances are to maintain morality and not spread the ideology of the points mentioned above. The internet is noted as “being the fastest communication medium in the world … [with] convenient access to this vast archive”(Khanna, Dhingra, & Choudhary, 2013). This means that anything has the ability to go viral. Immoral materials often present shock value, in turn, making such ideas more compelling to people. It is the government’s job that these kinds of ideas do not become widespread. 

The websites containing a lot of information with frequent visitors are occasionally blocked entirely, or partial content within it, to deny access to such globalized hubs. Many people would question why YouTube is blocked in China, or why Twitter is blocked in Turkey (Altintas, 2014; Bitso, 2014). These kinds of censorships result in negative reactions from the citizens. 

 

2. Control of censorship

2.1.Government or individuals: who should be responsible 

In their pledge to serve the people who want to promote the freedom of speech and expression, the governments should be “more transparent about how they act in regard to the internet censorship” (Murdock & Roberts, 2013). For some people, the internet is the only way to hold their government accountable, as in the example of the countries where the government is authoritarian and unresponsive to the peoples’ demands. In these cases, the internet becomes the platform for discussions on not only the content control, but also the social and political defense of their freedoms  (Murdock & Roberts, 2013). In order to avoid heated debates, the governments should be accountable to people. It should promote the conditions for the positive outcomes of appropriate censorship. 

Some control over the Internet censorship can be delegated to the country’s citizens. An individual self-censoring of viewed content is possible. It also results in the promotion of  positive environment for interpersonal exchange on the Internet. It is evident that when people self-censor, abiding by the ethical standards, the number of harmful outcomes of internet-based content diminishes. While self-censoring is common in the democratic countries that are individual-focused such as the Western world, it is also possible in the Muslim countries. The individuals can “take responsibility” and make personal choices (Schäbler and Stenberg, 2004, p. 156) about their use of content. Thus, both individuals and government should be responsible for the Internet content censorship. Furthermore, the censorship is appropriate particularly for the individuals in the countries that are democratizing. As there is democratic informed exchange between the government and its citizens, they share responsibility for censorship, that furthers the societal freedoms such as free speech (Rahim & Pawanteh, 2011).

2.2. When it is appropriate to censor  

There is a lack of agreement on the instances when the Internet content censorship is appropriate—and different countries censor for a variety of reasons. In the majority of examples in the literature, censorship depends on the type of the content that is considered harmful by the countries governments. There appears to be a reverse trend in censorship, depending on the countries’ governance style and the existent degree of Internet censorship. The countries that are democratic and have limited censorship regulations, such as the U.S., India and South Africa, censor content after the occurrence of threatening issues. The case of the U.S. WikiLeaks, the leaks of information from private emails, is a notable example. In the U.S., the stricter Internet censorship followed the threat to the reputation of public officials (Bauml, 2011). According to the reviewed literature, the democratizing countries such as Turkey and India selectively censor the internet, and some do so depending on the whims of current regimes (Altintas, 2014). And the more authoritarian countries censor the content that potentially opposes the political regime in place, as in China. While there is no international law and the countries consider censorship to be appropriate to various degrees, this does not mean that any country should censor Internet content for unclear reasons. 

3. Monitoring of censorship:

3.1. Useful versus harmful censorship

While the Internet is seen as bringing many freedoms to people, the examples of censorship in the modern world prove that this freedom is not always viewed by the governments as beneficial. They face the decisions to censor certain types of content already after the people are exposed to the harmful effects such as scams, cyber-terrorism, bullying as well as pornography distribution. Still, according to the Reporters Without Borders, some countries are the “enemies of freedom” (Murdock & Roberts, 2013, p. 47). In 2007, the Malay government, for example, arrested the bloggers who expressed critical opinions about the sultan (Rahim & Pawanteh, 2011, p. 7). The careful monitoring of the content to promote the social good by the governments is not the same as the violent oppression of the citizens’ rights.

Sometimes the governments limit their peoples’ choices to view any content. For example, the Malay government has, in the 80s, promoted the national cultural hegemony (Rahim & Pawanteh, 2011).  Rahim and  Pawanteh (2011) justify censorship on the grounds that, for example, the content on local TV channels should be favored to the multination TV channels. The Malay cultural imperative of the 80s was overcome as the country became more democratic.  Less censorship meant that diverse online cultures became accessible, overcoming the hegemony (Rahim & Pawanteh, 2011). Hill and Sen (2005), describing democratizing Indonesia, argue that the Internet content does not promote the hegemony of any one culture and that the exposure to the multi-cultural Internet leads to increasing peoples’ views and freedoms (Hill and Sen, 2005).

When Internet content is beneficial for the economy, it is less likely to be censored. China is a prominent example of this, because of close economic ties with the U.S., the internet content providers (ICP) such as Google and Yahoo operated in China. Yet, they participated in the content monitoring, on request of the Chinese government (Bauml, 2011). Thus the ICPs refused to protect the rights of the Chinese citizens who faced governmental persecution because of their human rights activities. As Bauml (2011) suggests, the content providers operating outside home countries should protect the peoples’ rights and personal safety, in the same way that the countries should be able to protect their security within national borders. 

3.2. Outcomes of censoring and not censoring 

The outcomes of censoring are assessed depending on what the governments view as the purpose of censoring. Yet if the premise of the internet as contributing to the freedom of expression is considered, then the outcomes of non-censoring clearly outweigh the benefits of censoring. The outcomes of censoring include reducing the spread of pornography, fraud, and defamation  (Oh & Aukerman, 2013). Nevertheless, as Oh and Aukerman (2013) describe, censoring can also lead to the over-protection of information and even to falsified detections. Moreover, the censoring by China, called the “great firewall of China” results in the widespread filtering of instant messages and email, in addition to internet content (Oh and Aukerman, p. 255). As for the outcomes of non-censoring or limited censoring, they offer the benefits of disseminating the diverse views, political participation, and opposing “unlawful ideologies and practices” (Khanna, Dhingra & Choudhary, 2013, p.1). Besides, the accessibility of content closes the information and development gap and brings people closer together in the exchange of their expressions (Khanna, 2013). In addition, it has benefits for the unprivileged and poorer people. For instance, the Malay populations speak diverse languages and dialects, and practice different believes. For them, the benefits of non-censoring comprise the access to knowledge in dialects and the ability to complain about the government on the Internet (Rahim & Pawanteh, 2011, p. 6).  The opposite of this is the remote exploitation by censorship, as is argued by Khanna, Dhingra and Choudhary (2013).

4. Censored content types and the reasons for censoring: 

4.1. Globalization effects on the Internet users

      The Internet censoring occurs in the governmental responses to global and local issues such as globalization, cultural hegemony, and social and political forces. Depending on the level of censorship, the countries can be divided into the low, medium and high content control levels. The countries such as North Korea, China, and Turkey are high control countries, because of their political regimes and position on political openness. Most countries reviewed in the literature are in the medium level of censorship and content control. Sometimes there are shifting regulations that respond to the new social and political issues as was the case with the new government in Turkey. Most countries face both local and global issues when censoring. 

The internet has become a gateway of globalized information; opinions are transferred in milliseconds from one continent to another. Governing bodies have many concerns with this widespread information since its citizens can be influenced in ways that can lead to unfavorable situations. It is questionable whether countries such as Turkey or China justify why they ban social media websites. Rahim (2011) maintains that “information from western societies to the rest of the world has engaged the western media in issues of cultural hegemony” (p. 3). The transparency of information works in the same way multinational organizations operate, where the wealthier would control the majority of the output leading to an influence on the culture of the poorer.

Globalization is feared by many governments due to its effect on the community and how it fails to maintain its heritage and culture. Saudi Arabia, as an example, is a country that uses the Quran to set its laws. If countries are to succumb to globalization, people would want to follow the same trends and obtain the same materialistic ideologies that are marketed through the internet. This can be seen as a threat, as Oh, Eom &Rao (2015) mentioned, that such incidents have been observed before, for example in Egypt, where people revolted against the government to achieve the democracy. This created a period of mass anarchy for the country. Even though globalization may be perceived as a threat, there are many positive instances for the Internet users, which can be used for development. Since people have an exposure to many different cultures online, they are more open to new ideas. 

4.2. The effects of liberalization 

Globalization has resulted in the liberalization of telecommunications and the commercialization of media channels. This brought a need to protect or at least to direct national industries—with the resultant call for prioritizing local content, as happened in Malaysia (Rahim & Pawanteh, 2011). In Malaysia, Indonesia and other democratizing countries, the internet played a role in opening the authoritarian regimes to the possibility of democratization. In other words, in its distributing various stories and perspectives, the Internet-based content builds the opposite of a strictly authoritarian regime (Rahim and Pawanteh, 2011, Hill and Sen, 2005). 

Liberalizing the internet allows the information to spread very quickly across borders. Thus, the WikiLeaks in the U.S. immediately exposed the secret information about the government officials, that became an international rather than a national scandal (Bauml, 2011). This shows how the effects of liberalization are complex, and quick access to the Internet-based information means that it is more difficult, but also not always necessary, to protect the private and the national information.

4.3. Political stability versus new country governments 

The governments that fear political and social change, including the change of regime, are more likely to engage in content censorship. For example, when the content threatening the new political regime in Turkey, its government closed down about fifty thousand websites (Altintas, 2014). As this equaled to suppression the right to expression, the government became more susceptible to be criticized, as happed during the exposure of its corruption on YouTube and Twitter (Altintas, 2014). Similarly, in Lybia, the Aljazeera news network was blocked when it became a source of threat to the regime (Bitso, 2014). As discussed above about the complexity of globalization, when the governments interpret political content as threatening to the political stability, they tend to censor it. Still, the benefit of non-censorship is democracy and ensuring the freedom of citizens to defend their rights and protest against the government’s action that do not defend people. 

The governments’ fears about stability are not justified. Firstly, the political opposition, if it has valid grounds, would attempt to oppose the regime outside of the Internet. Also, a small part of online content is political in nature. For example, only 33 percent of Internet content in Malaysia was political during the times of social change. In fact, there was about an equal number of pro-governmental and the opposing messages (Schäbler and Stenberg, 2004, p.148). As in the above-described case of the new Turkish government that tried to hide its failures like the corruption by censoring the Internet content, the intent of the messages was to prevent corruption and not overthrow the government. This proves that the online content should not be censored for the reasons of stability. The non-censorship would instead mean that the government is responding to people needs and protecting their rights. 

The low-level censorship countries such as South Africa are the example of democratic regimes that censor only the content that is harmful to the society. Following the advocacy by a Christian group, the Pornography Bill was issued, that banned the pornography on the internet and cell phones (Bitso, 2014, p.47). South Africa also issued the law protecting the state information, after the hacking of its government websites (Bitso, 2014). Following the new censorship regulation, the state democratically responded to the campaigns against the law liming the freedom of information. In other words, it did not suppress the opposition. This means that governments are capable of limiting censorship and achieve the rights to freedom.

4.4. Over-censoring of the Internet content 

North Korea and to some extent China represent the countries with the highest levels of information control and over-censorship. In North Korea, the internet content provides are banned from operating, and people are only subjected to the state-sponsored information. In China, the online media firewall blocks the western media such as the New York Times; besides, the historical facts about the government are hidden i.e. about the massacres and the Tibetan political leaders (Oh & Aukerman, 2013). Viewed in the perspective of the Internet bringing freedom to people, these countries significantly limit their citizens’ freedoms and rights. 

Their populations are precluded from benefiting from the Internet-based information and exchanges. Even though the regimes are not threatened by globalizations and multiplicity of views, the major outcome is the non-inclusion in the international conversations and processes. 

Conclusions:

The benefits of non-censorship are multiple and clearly outweigh the instances when content must be controlled. The limited censorship means that there is freedom of expression; that people learn about diverse views; that people can freely communicate within countries and across borders; and that the dominant cultural hegemonic views can be balanced by other views, including political ones. Moreover, despite fears of the negative outcomes of globalization, Internet-based expression can lead to development and democracy.

As is the case in low-control countries such as South Africa, censorship should be about protecting people from harm, particularly from the spread of pornography, offensive and fraudulent information. Also, the reputation of people should be protected when there is a privacy threat rather than exposure of overt corruption. And people should be protected from the governments than persecute them, to be able to express their views without fears. Thus the best role for the governments is to be accountable to their citizens, responding to their actions on democratization of information and explaining about what they do to monitor the Internet content and to generate social wellness.

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May 14, 2019 in Communications
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