Our current age is defined by the internet. The internet—a technology that allows the decentralized, globalized dissemination of information—has become so thoroughly entrenched in human life that access is now considered a basic human right. As a medium for innovation, it has gifted us wonderful things as diverse as Uber Eats and Tinder, not to mention facilitating quantum leaps in industry and academia.
Yet, like any sufficiently complex technology, the internet has created some serious and unforeseen externalities. The most pressing of these is a potentially irreversible decline in human freedom—the internet is currently facilitating a reduction in the ability of the average human to conduct her life free from government or corporate intervention. This is not abstract alarmism—the social importance of the internet is increasing in parallel with the political will and technology necessary to impose restrictions on how it is used. There are concrete limitations being placed on internet use globally, and we lucky few in the West have yet to fully appreciate just how horrible the situation has the potential to become.
Freedom, loosely defined, is the ability to act in a manner of your choosing, without compulsion or interference—the more you can do without censure, either by the state or your fellow citizens, the freer you are. Most of us agree that freedom of speech, in particular, has a lot of social utility—culture wars notwithstanding, it’s comforting to know that running a political blog won’t end with a stint in a reeducation camp or a bullet to the back of the head.
Unfortunately, according to the 2018 annual report of the independent freedom and democracy advocacy organization Freedom House, individual liberty seems to be under significant duress globally for a variety of reasons including civil war, famine, the rise of undemocratic regimes and entrenched institutional corruption. The report makes specific reference to the suppression of freedoms that have occurred in both Russia and China facilitated by the internet and internet technology. This is not a coincidence: the nature of how information and data travels over an internet network serves to expedite the development of censorship tools and the repression of certain information in order to serve political objectives. To quote the report directly – state control over the internet and social media can lead to both censorship and active manipulation of information to promote the regime’s message, while confusing users with lies and fakery. This means more corruption, injustice and impunity for state abuses.
Anyone with even a cursory understanding of Russian or Chinese politics knows that enduring state censorship is an implicit regime objective, ostensibly aimed at ensuring social stability. The most conspicuous example is China’s Great Firewall: an immensely sophisticated amalgamation of software and manual censorship that operates in concert with state media to exert almost complete control over the tone and type of information available to Chinese citizens. There is a somewhat depressing meme about how Chinese gamers are prone to suddenly go offline if you spam them with words or phrases banned by the Communist party, e.g. Tiananmen Square.
Russia is also toying with a similar concept by redirecting all its internet traffic to route internally, under the pretext of preparations for a possible global internet outage. While network resilience is a common security goal, the fact that all external traffic (that is, information flowing between Russia and the outside world) must pass through government-controlled checkpoints is almost definitely a mechanism that will be exploited for intelligence purposes—the Russian state will be able to refuse access to non state-sanctioned material under the pretext of cyber security. You might be wondering so what if Russia manages to create an even more restrictive firewall than China’s? We already know that these are autocratic, illiberal regimes.
However, while many oppressive regimes have attempted to enact a mechanism of comprehensive censorship in the past, internet censorship is an altogether different beast. For the first time in human history, communication will approach a singularity, in which nearly all non face-to-face transfer of information will occur via IP (internet protocol, a defined standard for data transfer over internet networks). As communication becomes increasingly centralized via this single channel, it will become technically possible to monitor and control a larger proportion of all communication. The fundamental question, then, is: if your government doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have the right to monitor your physical communications, to what extent should it have the right to monitor your digital ones? And, for countries with a free speech provision in their constitutions (e.g. the US): to what extent can constitutionally allowable speech or content be restricted within internet channels?
Observed in isolation, the authoritarian measures taken in China and Russia don’t immediately indicate an existential risk to freedom elsewhere. Some would argue that citizens of both countries can still air their grievances about the regime and discuss verboten political topics in person, effectively opting out of the channels that are subject to state or corporate censorship. But this fails to address the core of the issue: how much freedom of expression do you really have when no one can hear you? Since the vast majority of impactful communication is conducted digitally, how much of your freedom of speech remains when you are excluded from using whatever digital platforms form the basis of social discourse?
The avowedly anti-technology Theodore Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber, made the prescient observation that the opt-out argument is fallacious at a societal level: it hardly matters in practice whether or not an individual has the right to opt out of any particular technology when adoption of that technology has become the social norm. Everyone is free to avoid owning a car, but America’s transport infrastructure is heavily biased towards the construction and maintenance of roads. Choosing not to drive puts you at a great practical disadvantage when driving is the norm. The internet is the infrastructure of the future—at some point, it will no longer be possible to avoid the use of internet technologies, and, by extension, the mechanisms of content and discourse control applied to these technologies by a clumsy and technologically illiterate state.
A discussion of a similar nature has been raging in the US for some time, particularly with regard to the right of privately owned social media platforms to refuse access to those who allegedly violate their internal policies or guidelines. (Alex Jones, of InfoWars infamy, is one such prominent victim.) While Russia and China determine what constitutes acceptable content by monitoring the internet at a network level, most citizens of Western nations have collectively shrugged at the fact that censorship has evolved into a core function of social media monsters like Facebook and Twitter. But nobody cares until it’s their own Facebook page getting zucked for violating community standards.
Alexander Blum comprehensively analyzes the argument against social media censorship in a recent essay for this magazine: when the public square becomes controlled by private and largely unaccountable entities, who’s to say what forms of speech might be arbitrarily prohibited tomorrow? Blum makes the case that left-wing, progressive citizens should be wholly against platform censorship, as they themselves may be subjected to censorship in the future. However, while private social media platforms censor themselves, they are also being subjected to censorship by the regulatory environment in which they operate. The level of the platform is merely one of many in a hierarchy that begins with the underlying network and ends with surveillance systems that monitor and collate data from multiple private platforms.
Facebook is currently undertaking self-regulation to prohibit all white nationalist and white supremacist content, while awaiting an Australian government decision as to the extent of its legal obligation to monitor and remove extremist content that can be spread through its largely unsupervised live streaming feature. As Facebook themselves admit, it’s pretty hard to figure out who’s actually a white supremacist. Banning praise of Hitler? Probably an unequivocally good thing. Making it forbidden to criticize some aspects or consequences of mass immigration? Not so much.
The symbiotic relationship between self-censorship and reactive government intervention might, in general, be supported by the progressives Blum identifies in his piece. Though he may be right in fearing that the scythe of deplatforming could one day cut down the left, it is currently harvesting a disproportionate amount of right wingers. An analysis of the political bias indicated by Twitter bans suggests that Twitter (like so many other platforms that have emerged from Silicon Valley) has inherent progressive leanings, and there is no reason to believe that this bias will be self-correcting. If governments show a tendency to restrict content—just as private platforms do—it is difficult to foresee a future in which these platforms become more politically neutral than they are today.
Most alarmingly, the internet also tends to accelerate the development of technologies that allow physical surveillance and other kinds of monitoring unrelated to the use of the internet itself. China again provides a dystopian example with their behemothic social credit system, which allows the government to evaluate and rank citizens and punish anti-social conduct. Prior to the advent of the internet, such a system would not have been feasible: it requires an enormous amount of data, and the computational ability to process such data in a meaningful and efficient way. The internet allows disparate Chinese government departments to communicate with each other and update social credit scores. Such a punitive method of evaluating social life could never have been possible without a ubiquitous, instantaneous means of transmitting large quantities of data.
Western governments have also experimented with similar systems. The Patriot Act grants US intelligence agencies sweeping powers to collect data on US citizens, to prevent terror attacks on US soil. While the objectives of the social credit system and the monitoring the NSA conducts are completely different, the US government is perfectly capable of collecting and analyzing individualized data by snooping on internet traffic (such as phone calls and bank records). The right to communicate and share data online without government oversight has been diminished, perhaps irreversibly so. In Australia, legislation has been proposed that would compel providers of encrypted communication services to develop back door access for government agents, thus rendering a vast amount of private content open to surveillance by intelligence agencies. The ability of democratic governments to force internet service providers or platforms to act in such a way is often functionally similar to direct government control: the tentacles of state superintendence are slowly wrapping themselves around everyday internet use.
The extent of online censorship has also demonstrably exceeded whatever may be necessary to improve national security. European directives Articles 11 and 13 have shown that the Union is not hesitant to impose vast (and arguably ill-defined) obligations on internet platforms, under threat of significant fines: the so called link tax and the copyright filtering now required of platform providers would have been inconceivable at the start of the internet age. The infamous UK porn ban demonstrates the ability of the state to unilaterally impose content restrictions at will—as does the blocking of 4chan, 8chan and other websites hosting the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto by New Zealand ISPs, in the wake of the Christchurch tragedy. While these examples don’t suggest any sort of anti-freedom conspiracy, they demonstrate a crucial point. It was once possible to access data and content via the internet with no government oversight or restriction. This is no longer the case. Several governments have shown a tendency to take reactive action and impose censorship without democratic consultation, under the auspices of existing media and communications laws. Legislation that was never intended to apply to the internet is now being retrofitted to internet content whenever politically expedient—the UK porn ban, for example, might have come about merely because it polls well.
The internet was originally seen as an antidote to state censorship and control—largely because it was once functionally impossible to monitor or control anything other than physical access to an internet connection and because of the lack of regulations pertaining to the use of internet technology. However, both the will and the ability to restrict the types of information citizens can access over the internet have never been greater—even as the internet itself has never been more important. The fact that some social media platforms choose to engage in politicized self-censorship is but one manifestation of a larger and more terrifying trend.