Censorship in the Digital Age – by “Ted P”

A. An Introduction

OK. Time to open Pandora’s box. Today’s topic? CENSORSHIP.

The idea of censorship is inextricably linked to the concept of information dissemination through the media, be it through more traditional means such as newspapers and television, or, more recently, new technologies such as the Internet. In any case, the act of censorship is also, by definition, associated with some entity that does the censoring.

The first example of a censoring entity that comes to mind (for me at least) is Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany, before and during the Second World War. This particular governmental entity (an entity with actual, legal executive power over a large population) is often cited as the ultimate example of a disseminator of propaganda and censorship.  Where did this power come from?

Ever since the advent of the first electronic media formats, namely film and radio, it has been relatively easy for governments to control the dissemination of information (barring a legal framework to prohibit such behavior, but we will discuss this later). In other words, virtually unquestionable executive authority and capability to fund high-cost, effective propaganda has often allowed governments to be the censoring entity, as in the case of Goebbels’s Ministry. In the past, the same did not hold true of non-governmental entities. Often lacking in funding or power to affect the masses, businesses, organizations etc. were rarely seen controlling information flow.

Today, more than six decades after Goebbels, things have changed. In this digital age, censorship has taken on new dimensions and applications. With the advent of the Internet, government control over the “masses” has lessened, while big corporations, especially in the technology sector (can anyone guess who I have in mind?) can take part in censoring, or prohibiting censoring for that matter.

But before we move on to specific examples of censorship and its implications today, let’s take a look at the legal ideas and framework behind it.

B. Legal Framework

1) Unconstitutionality

OK. So let’s start with some connotations; Censorship. Media. Information Dissemination. Information suppression. Propaganda. Government conspiracy. Dictatorship. Totalitarianism. I don’t know about you, but none of the above sound really positive to me.

Well, even if you don’t agree, it seems that enough people do since popular opinion holds that censorship is usually bad, excluding certain exceptions. (The links chosen are just indicative; there are many more interesting discussions if one just googles “censorship is bad”). Indeed, most democratic countries have a legal framework (be it in the form of statutes or precedent court cases) that addresses the issue of censorship. In my analysis, I will use only U.S. law, citing specific examples, but the underlying moral and legal principles are more or less the same for all countries.

In the United States, censorship is considered unconstitutional under the 1st Amendment. The First Amendment states that:

“Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press […].”

Thus, any attempt by any entity to censor information in the media can be found to infringe on the First Amendment rights of the publisher, as “freedom of press” is compromised.

The unconstitutionality of censorship was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark decision in 1971, when it ruled in the favor of the plaintiff of a case that would be come to be know as the “Pentagon Papers” case.

2) New York Time Co. v. United States

In the Pentagon Papers case. the executive branch (surprise-surprise) of the US had sought an injunction against the New York Times, to prevent it from publishing a report on the Vietnam War. The report, entitled “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense”, had been leaked by Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg and would humiliate the Johnson administration and the government as a whole if it were published. The Times defended the publication under the First Amendment, leading to a trial that was eventually appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Legally, the Times were in the right; the editors had obtained the material legally, and its publication was supposed to be protected under the First Amendment (freedom of press). Furthermore, the publication of the report would not affect the government’s ability to protect its citizens in any way, so there was no serious argument against publication pertaining to national security.

In a decision which would determine the future of censorship legislation, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had no right to place restraints on the publication of content it sought to suppress, citing Near v. Minnesota: “the chief purpose of [the First Amendment’s] guaranty [is] to prevent previous restraints upon publication.”

3) Exceptions to the Rule

What is a rule without exceptions?

J. Brennan, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court at the time, brings up some very interesting points in his concurrence, concerning specific exceptions where censorship can be tolerated or considered legal.

i) The first and most important exception, Brennan posits, can be inferred by certain past Supreme Court cases, and concerns “a very narrow class of cases”; those affecting national security. Specifically, Brennan mentions that in the instance that “the Nation is at War” or some equivalent situation, “the First Amendment’s ban on prior judicial restraint may be overridden”. But, before it can be overridden, there must be significant “governmental allegation and proof that publication must inevitably, directly, and immediately cause the occurrence of an event kindred to imperiling the safety of a transport already at sea”. In other words, the government must prove an immediate, direct and highly consequential effect on national security. Needless to say, this burden of proof is quite large and not easily met.

ii) The second possible exception (if it can be called that) is the case of obscene material. Once again, this exception arises from another Supreme Court case: New York v. Ferber. The background of the case is not pertinent to our discussion, but the finding is; the Supreme Court held that any material deemed obscene (legally measured by an obscenity standard developed in Miller v. California) can not be protected under the First Amendment. Therefore, any action taken by an entity to censor obscene material is absolutely legal. The reason I mention this rare, peripheral exception now, is that I would like to discuss a modern-day scenario where it applies a bit further down

C. Censorship in the Internet Age

With this legal framework in mind, I would like to discuss four scenarios that have unfolded in the recent past, each of which can help us define the changes in the dynamics of censorship today.

1) Wikileaks: The Richard Stallman of Free Media.

(Please excuse the analogy, but when I thought about the parallels, I couldn’t help but include it).

I start with Wikileaks because it is one of the more clear-cut, legally speaking, situations. In terms of background, the situation differs only slightly from the “Pentagon Papers” case. Indeed, in the “about” page of their website, the editors of Wikileaks directly quote Justice Black’s (also an Associate Justice for the Supreme Court at the time) concurrence: “’only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.’ We agree.”

So what are the parallels with the Pentagon Papers? Well, just like the New York Times, Wikileaks receives its original material legally, by trading for it with secret sources (the methods by which the sources themselves gather the material is legally-speaking completely irrelevant). Furthermore, under the US Constitution, the publication of the material is legally protected by the Freedom of Press clause of the First Amendment.

This being said, there are the aforementioned exceptions to think about. Little if any of Wikileaks’ material can be categorized as legally obscene, so the 2nd exception is out of play. But some of the material released on the site could conceivably have an impact on National security. Indeed, this is the opinion held by many members of the government. But, as Justice Brennan stated in his concurrence, the burden of proof for such a claim would be immense. It would be extremely difficult to prove a direct effect on national security. In the words Robert Gates, former CIA chief: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

In conclusion, barring extreme cases, all Wikileaks material is legally protected under the First Amendment and censoring it is unconstitutional. This is why most, if not all, attempts to persecute the organizations legally have failed (as the editors blatantly boast on their site). In the absence of a plausible case against Wikileaks, prosecutors have alternatively pursued actual leakers (e.g. Bradley Manning), whose acquisition of the material is arguably illegal.

Now for the fun part: the Richard Stallman parallels. While skimming the “about” section of the Wikileaks site, I detected an underlying tone of “rebellion”, for lack of a better description. There was a certain, vague smugness in it, which, to me, suggested a “stick it to the man” mentality. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t for a moment doubt their belief in absolute freedom of press. But at least part of their mission seemed to be fueled by hatred (justified or otherwise) for demonized governments and multinational corporations. Similarly, Stallman has openly rebelled against the big tech-software companies (e.g. Microsoft) by developing the DNU General Public License. And most people would agree that Stallman is at least partly driven by scorn for the big tech companies who “force people to pay for software.

Let’s take it to another level: Stallman’s purpose in creating the GPL was to help software programmers work together and build on each others’ work (promoting the common goal of improving software), without worrying about copyright infringement. Drawing the parallel, Wikileaks editors advocate the cooperation of all media outlets “to bring stories to a broad international readership” (promoting the common goal of complete freedom of press).

These are the most obvious similarities I can think of currently. But I won’t stop here: following is a funny strip from the infamous xkcd webcomic, an obvious exaggeration of Stallman’s ideology: (I cropped part of the comic, as it is irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make; click on the picture to see the original).

Stallman is attacked in his sleep. All copyrights owned by Randall Munroe and xkcd.com

And now my own iteration of the picture, rethought for Wikileaks.

My version of the Stallman comic. "Wikileaks Attacked".
For concerned third parties, my alteration of the comic is protected under fair use, since (i) it is for educational purposes, (ii) has some transformative value, and (iii) I have no financial motive.

2) Baidu-Google in China

One of the most discussed issues in the history of Internet censorship has been the Chinese government’s Internet search engine policy. Baidu, the largest online search engine in China, allegedly censors a huge list of “undesirable” sites and searches at the behest of the socialist government (rationalized as “according to the policies and regulations of China”). This censorship includes any content that criticizes the ruling Communist Party, which has led to a global outcry from democracy advocates worldwide. In this case, the entity attempting censorship is once again the government. However, unlike in the past, the government has no direct control over the information dissemination. It must instead rely solely on its executive power, which should influence the true information disseminators (Baidu) to do its bidding. As a side note, a lawsuit was recently brought against Baidu in the US for unconstitutional conduct in “blocking prodemocracy speech from search results”. This lawsuit piqued my interest because it opens up all manners of questions about the extent to which a Chinese organization can be held accountable in the US. But that is a discussion for another day.

The case was very similar with Google, at least until last year. The search engine giant had also been the subject to Chinese regulation, which meant that it was obligated to filter results and censor certain topics (same as those censored by Baidu). In much the same way as with Baidu, the socialist government relied on its executive power to influence Google’s policy. But Google is different than Baidu in one key respect: it is not based in China. Thus, when it decided to move out of the country and into Hong Kong last year (a move that Baidu would be unable and perhaps unwilling to perform, considering its base of operations is in China), it was no longer obligated to censor search results, since the Communist Party’s executive and judicial reach did not extend over China’s borders. Thus the entity that has the power to disseminate and censor information in this case, chose to ignore the latter power.

3) The Arab Spring

The beginning of 2011 saw many rebellions start and take hold in various Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia etc. These are the first rebellions to take place in the era of the Internet, and indeed the World Wide Web seems to have played a significant role in the uprisings. During the rebellion against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, one activist in Cairo tweeted that “We use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate, and Youtube to tell the world.” Another, humorously tweeted:

A tweet from an "activist" in Cairo.

As is the case with all rebellions, the local governments wanted to quash the uprisings. Recognizing the significance of the Internet, as well as their own inability to effectively monitor and censor it, some states tried different methods of controlling it. In Egypt and Libya, the government  went as far as completely denying access to the Internet as a whole, while in Syria, a government-backed organization severely hacked and defaced several social media sites the rebels were using. These are all, of course, acts of censorship and suppression of the citizens’ freedom of speech, as well as publishers’ freedom of press. Which I guess partly justifies the rebellions in the first place.

4) Google and Child Pornography

I will end on a more optimistic note, with another instance of positive change in the dynamic of censorship (it also relates to the obscenity exception I promised to talk about). In a wholly agreeable step, Google has recently attempted to tackle the problem of child pornography on the Net. It has reconfigured one of its filtering algorithms to recognize and filter certain patterns that are indicative of pedophilic of other such obscene conduct. By practically any and all social norms, child pornography passes any obscenity test, which means that, under the New York v. Ferber precedent, it is not protected under the First Amendment. So, in a sense, filtering such results is not censorship per se, since it doesn’t violate any constitutional rights. Therefore Google can legally exclude all such results from its searches without being sued for suppression of the freedom of press. Once again the entity that has the power to disseminate and censor information has chosen to ignore the latter option. However, this time it is not influenced by another entity (e.g. a government), as it was in the Baidu case, but rather by the social norms (or standard) of the community which would condemn it if it didn’t act so.

D. Conclusion

The advent of the Internet has radically changed the nature and synamic of censorship in the media. While in the past the censoring entity was usually a government, resulting in propaganda, the Net has ushered in a new era. A government’s ability to censor has been radically decreased, now that it cannot directly control the information flow to its citizens (even if it did control the Internet, which it doesn’t, the sheer volume of information on the Web should make monitoring and control it extremely hard).

So who is the new censoring entity? You got it. Big technological corporations that can control information flow over the Internet: Google, Facebook, Baidu.  It is easy to demonize these entities, just as it was easy to demonize the propaganda and censorship conducted by governments in the past. Indeed, who’s to say that there aren’t incentives for these entities to censor (e.g. profit), just as there was for governments (e.g. public opinion). We saw that Baidu is basically a marionette for the Chinese government when it comes to Internet censorship. But this is not always the case; we also saw that Google has both declined to censor material the Chinese government asks it to and tackled the problem of child pornography. Definitely better than if the Communist Party was in charge… Don’t you agree?

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