Censorship and Staying Safe Online

This is a repost of a piece I previously published online under a pseudonym in June 2018

The UK Government has recently announced their aim to make Britain ‘the Safest place to be Online’. Abusive behaviour such as trolling and cyber-bullying which would be unacceptable in the real world, they say, should also be unacceptable in the online world as well. The internet is often seen as being akin to the Wild West, where there is no formal legal system and people can effectively do as they please. As with any Spaghetti Western the vast majority of the Internet’s citizens are law abiding farmers or doctors, but there will always be bandits and cattle rustlers who take advantage of the general state of lawlessness to rob and burn with impunity.

To clean up this digital Dodge City the government intends to introduce legislation that will require compulsory age-verification checks to access many types of website, and (beginning with social media) force the removal of posts and content that are deemed to be inappropriate or contain ‘hate speech’. Setting aside the topic of the privacy violations the compulsory age verification would cause (under many data protection laws someone’s age is considered personally identifiable information), I would like concentrate on the powers to permanently remove offensive material from websites. This would not be the first time that a government has altered the content of the sources of information being fed to their citizens, and whether the medium is digital, printed, or indeed televised the processes share a common name: censorship.

Historically, censorship has rarely been a force for good. The most famous example of government censorship of the internet is known as the Great Firewall of China. Access to any website from within China is blocked if the content of that site is seen as being critical of the Chinese government, or promotes philosophies and ways of life that are said to be in conflict with the state-prescribed ideology. The result of this is that vast swathes of the internet are made inaccessible from within China (unless using technology to bypass the government firewalls). Not all censorship, however, has to be so obvious. During the reign of Stalin in the former USSR many enemies of the state (as well as rival members of the Soviet party) were quietly disposed of to prevent them posing a challenge to Uncle Joe’s rule. These people were not simply killed, but were Airbrushed out of photographs and mentioned of them removed from official history books. They were essentially made to disappear as if they had never existed. If the UK government gains the ability to force the removal of content from the web which they deem inappropriate, then they will also gain the ability to make people and events disappear.

The obvious counter to to this, of course, is that we do not live in a totalitarian regime. Nor do our government have an evil vendetta against Jews, homosexuals, or any other similar minority. These laws are not being introduced to make freedom of speech impossible, but simply to make us and our children safer online. What we must remember, however, is that granting powers to an institution, is very different from giving them to an individual.

We regularly allow others to make decisions which will have an impact upon our lives. Whether this is sharing a bank account with our partners, letting our best men organise our stag parties, or entrusting a doctor to perform a surgical procedure on us. All of these examples, however, are where we have deferred to the authority of another individual; knowing them as a person we can make a judgement on whether we feel they are trustworthy, and can withdraw our consent if they prove unworthy of that trust. Granting powers to organisations or institutions is rather different from this as the person executing those powers is subject to change. You would be far less likely to share control of your bank account details with a company than you would with a friend or relative as, even if you trust those who work for it at the moment, you know they will change their staff in the future. Handing over powers to a government is an even more risky proposition than this as (provided you wish to stay out of jail) you can not decide to withdraw your consent to laws if the government changes.

This, of course, means that even if we trust those who are in power at the moment, we also have to trust everyone else who succeeds them. If at the first general election after the new legislation is introduced the government were to be replaced by a fascist (or whatever for you is the worst imaginable political group) regime, they would then have legal powers to remove any traces of dissent from the internet; and even to remove all record of any persons who do not fit their ideology.

In the real world there are bullies, stalkers, and racists. This does not mean that we advocate or accept their behaviour, but nor does this mean that we should erase their words and pretend that they don’t exist. In the real world we do see and hear things that hurt us and we would not like our children exposed too, but we overcome this and make judgements on what we allow children to do. If we delete the words of those who wish to hurt others they will not simply stop writing, but will instead seek other, potentially more damaging outlets for their hate and anger. Few problems are solved by avoiding them and pretending they are not problems, perhaps there is a better way for solving this one than by ignoring it.

The question then becomes how many personal freedoms are we willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe? Do we trust those who we are giving these powers, and also all others who may succeed them? Will eroding freedom of speech make us safer now, and in the future?

The answers to these questions can only ever come from yourself. But we must always remember that it is far easier to give others controls over our lives, than it is to take them away.

Those interested in reading the official press release from the horse’s mouth can find it on the gov.uk site here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/making-britain-the-safest-place-in-the-world-to-be-online