The internet—the world’s final frontier for free thinkers and pictures of cats. These days just about everyone uses it, from grandma to six-year-old little Timmy. We may have different reasons for logging in, but everyone has something to gain from the endless trove of information and ideas that sits before our computer, phone, or tablet. But not everyone thinks that information should universally be available.
First World Problems
It’s well known that oppressive governments seek to limit access to the internet, censoring political dissidence and restricting content to that which best supports the powers that be. But increasingly, even less tyrannical governments have begun placing restrictions on what users can and can’t see. ISPs hoping to save money in the US have campaigned in an attempt to setup internet fast lanes to charge heavy traffic websites extra money to maintain their speed (such as Netflix).
Even Australia, a first-world nation by any standard, has recently passed legislation to start outright blocking web domains deemed guilty of supporting pirated content. It will require ISPs to block these websites on a national level, limiting what Australians have access to; unless of course they use a VPN (virtual private network), which allows the user to connect to the net via other countries. If you’re stuck behind the censor in Australia, I suggest looking into VPNs that are suitable for keeping your access clean.
But some would argue these measures of censorship are good; aren’t there things we don’t want to see on the internet? Is a certain measure of control a benefit to society? On its face, it might seem so, but censorship actually hurts everyone (including the censors).
It should come as no surprise to learn that censorship typically targets new ideas rather than old ones. Some new ideas are so controversial and challenge the system to such an extreme degree that it may be argued that these ideas are heretical. But let us not forget how ideas once thought to be the product of insanity are now regular practice. Doctors should wash their hands, right?
Unfortunately for many unnecessarily lost patients, this wasn’t always the case. A man by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis first championed the idea that doctors washing their hands and instruments could reduce the rate of death in hospitals. He was right, as we know today, but to his contemporaries he was a nut. He was ostracized from his position as a doctor and eventually died in a mental hospital.
But his story is important when it comes to sharing ideas on the internet. Unlike in Semmelweis’s time, ideas can be shared much more immediately, so long as they aren’t blocked by censorship. While there are plenty of bad ideas, the potential for life changing ideas to be spread is worth sorting through the chafe. Galileo was one of the first figures to champion the idea of a heliocentric solar system, but he ended up under house arrest for the remainder of his days.
What these people lacked was all the same, and something the internet does best, but it is also threatened.
The same people who want to censor the net are also interested in keeping everyone on the radar. Blocking access to websites inherently requires that service providers know who is issuing the request for that website. Unfortunately that makes users much more vulnerable, as hackers are also privy to that sort of information. Luckily this can be avoided with a good VPN, but be warned that not all VPNs are created equal.
Losing anonymity via censorship means ideas are less likely to be shared. When people fear criticism or retribution for sharing their thoughts, they’re less likely to put them out there. It’s exactly why Twitter has become so astoundingly popular. Anyone can post whatever they want on there and receive feedback from anyone else across the globe.
Thus far Twitter and its ilk have few restrictions on what people can and cannot post. They want their users to feel as if they are free to express their thoughts because it keeps their business relevant and boosts accessibility.
Bad for Business
Reviews aren’t always pretty. When a business or associate does a poor job, online reviews tend to reflect that. In some cases, it’s tempting to prevent negative feedback or literally delete negative comments. After all, who wants to buy from the 1-star seller on Amazon?
There’s nothing worse than an artificial echo chamber created by public censorship. Bad ideas are perpetuated when information from the outside is prevented from surfacing. Though the comments aren’t always flattering, peoples’ honest, public opinions ultimately benefit the whole by helping companies improve their business practices and weeding out bad ideas through force of community.
What about piracy though? Surely Steve downloading a few songs or movies without paying is making the entertainment business lose revenue, right?
Turns out, not really; a recent study shows that the rise in file sharing has not negatively impacted the entertainment industry. On the contrary, revenues are higher than ever at the box office with “illegal” file sharing often boosting sales by acting as a means of free advertising. The hype is real and record companies must soon come to terms with reality; their business model may simply be outdated, and censoring the net only generates ill will towards them.
Follow the Money
It ought to be obvious that censorship has a less hidden cost to go along with all the underlying problems. It literally costs money to implement internet blocking programs and legislation. Whether you’re at the top or the bottom of the scale, taxes pay for the government to do its job, and when the government decides to take action against content on the internet, it means someone has to pay for it.
That someone is everyone. We share that burden, though some less than others. A magical device doesn’t come along and change the internet. Whoever is doing the censoring has to be paid for the work they’re doing; the equipment they use needs to be purchased and maintained, and all of this adds up to less money available for more important things.
The government isn’t the only one doing it. Schools also censor their internet access by preventing students from accessing certain content. At best this is only somewhat effective; education material is often accidentally blocked in attempts to prevent access to more inappropriate content (something that staff should be mindful of, not machines).
Access for All
The way things are going, censorship is only getting worse. While we find ways to navigate around with proxies, VPNs, or other tricks, the world’s best chance for free speech is continually under attack. Freedom of speech is a relatively recent invention on the world scale, and nowhere is it more prevalent than online.
If we hope to one day see free speech span the globe, then it’s our duty to make sure that it remains strong and unobstructed on the internet. Hopefully that right means something to enough of us, lest it becomes available to none of us.
Isa is a blogger, internet security expert and tech lover. Online privacy, safe blogging practices and internet censorship are the topics she enjoys covering. Together with friends they run Securethoughts.com.