Censor This


Written by Betty Wood
Photos and illustrations by Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters, Reporters Without Borders, Stefan R. Landsberger
23 Tuesday 23rd August 2011

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi image by Ahmed Jadallah

As Gaddafi and his loyalist supporters were forced to make a 'strategic' retreat from his compound in Tripoli internet connections across Libya intermittenly started blinking back into life, waging their own battle to maintain connectivity to the global superhighway. Although unstable during the bursts of connection, Libyans took to the internet to post Twitter and Facebook updates of Gaddafi's withdrawal.

It's no understatement that the internet is the world's most powerful medium. Within a second, information can be transmitted from one side of the world to millions of people a thousand miles away - it is convenient, increases the information at our disposal and can make life easier. Which is precisely the reason why in so many countries the internet is carefully monitored, controlling the information that reaches people in their homes.

Infographic by Reporters without Borders showing internet sensorship by country

But it's not just Egypt, Libya and the other so-called Arab Spring countries that are subject to online  scrutiny from above - China, the world's largest economy, is also one of the heaviest for online policing. Owned by the Ministry of Public Security, the Golden Shield Project aka the Great Firewall of China blocks any IP addresses from being routed through to mainland China when containing pornographic, anti-government, Falun Gong spiritual and Taiwanese material. Even Facebook has fallen foul of Chinese censors along with Twitter, Blogspot, Youtube and Google+ meaning that the information and media transmitted within China is less open to 'spontaneous' reaction. Dissident views cannot be expressed openly online - an illegal act in the communist country. According to Amnesty International, China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.”

Protest is serious business as is our right to uphold it, which is why the recent London riots have provoked such a furious debate in the Houses of Commons and across the media. Following the revelation that the riots were organised largely through Blackberry Messenger and Twitter, David Cameron announced to parliament the government's plans to look at banning access to social media websites for individuals thought to be planning criminal activities.

Infographic venn diagram showing reasons for censorship by nation

In America, similar measures are already being used. Following planned protests in the San Francisco Bay area against the killing of Charles Hill - a 45-year-old man shot dead by a police officer, officials at San Francisco's Bay Area Transit system limited mobile phone access during a planned protest. The block preventing users from placing calls and using programmes such as Twitter from their devices. Although the planned protest did not materialise, in a statement the police defended their right to intervene arguing protesters had "stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police."

But Greenwich University Social Media expect Dr Paola Tubaro argues 'any move by the government to regulate or restrict social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, or popular instant messenger BBM, would result in future civil unrest and higher levels of violence'. She joins the legion of individuals who have questioned the government's right to censor.

Meanwhile, back in China, David Cameron’s response to the riots has garnered a nod of approval from the Chinese government; “media in the US and Britain used to criticize developing countries for curbing freedom of speech. Britain’s new attitude will help appease the quarrels between East and West over the future management of the Internet.” Reported via Boing Boing, surely this endorsement is evidence enough that our attitude to social media platforms and censorship of the internet is heading into dangerous waters.


What are your thoughts? Is censorship a necessary evil, or just an example of tech-age tyranny?

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