The world faces many problems – some of these are root problems which, if we strike at them first, will make it far easier to solve many other problems. This is one such problem:
The world is censored through blocks and filters, or overly restrictive copyright. Some of the most prominent examples happen in countries like China, where whole domains – like Blogspot, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – are missing from the online world. However, even countries like Germany which might consider themselves free of censorship do in fact censor, setting a bad precedent for freedom of speech, and offering a good excuse for other countries to continue working on their censorship... with every country believing that their censorship is “good” and rightful and needed for historical and cultural reasons.
Technology companies, in turn, often go ahead and implement these censorship filters, working hand in hand with government agencies to restrict what citizens can talk about and see.
As soon as material enters censorship lists, it can become hard for the public to even discuss if this material belongs there, because the list itself might not be public. Researching this topic will be legally riskier, discussions on it may be muted. Often, filters and blocks enter the laws under specific limitations and pretensions, but soon become widened to include other material too. A filter aimed only at a certain group is suddenly expanded to an even bigger group, the distinctions blurred.
Even government actions and decisions become censored due to alleged needs for secrecy, meaning we cannot subject them to the democratic processes and journalistic reflection. Sometimes even the courts become secret, including the subpoeanas or search warrants it sends out, meaning the public and media cannot evaluate what's happening.
Beyond direct blocks, overly limiting copyright laws do their part in silencing speech. A political video may be removed because it contained the wrong soundtrack. Murky Digital Rights Management systems may have you lose the content you already thought you owned. A whole website may be brought down because corporations sued it for some copyright violations per current restrictive laws. Even with Fair Use laws in the US, it’s hard to know what you can remix and share without offending regulations. Whole parts of culture may become abandoned because the delay until which they fall in the public domain is becoming extended over time. With all these, more and more website makers may be afraid to set up communication tools in the first place, knowing they cannot handle the legal battles they’d get themselves into.
Sometimes, censorship is also indirectly implemented by having corporations cut off the financial help for a communication channel. Case in point: The problems the Wikileaks platform faced when payment systems stopped allowing people to donate to them.
Why is this a root problem? Once your online voice is silenced, you cannot express your opinion on a lot of other problems, including other root problems. Want to discuss media bias by showing an excerpt from a news show at YouTube? You might get sued for copyright violation. Want to read all tweets related to changing campaign financing laws? Sorry, Twitter is blocked in China. Only if we solve this root problem can we be sure to continue the free flow of information needed to discuss and tackle other issues. Jeremy Bentham said, “As to the evil which results from a censorship, it is impossible to measure it, for it is impossible to tell where it ends.”
Lawrence Lessig in his book Free Culture says that “in our tradition, intellectual property is an instrument. It sets the groundwork for a richly creative society but remains subservient to the value of creativity. The current debate has this turned around. We have become so concerned with protecting the instrument that we are losing sight of the value ... Just at the time digital technology could unleash an extraordinary range of commercial and noncommercial creativity, the law burdens this creativity with insanely complex and vague rules and with the threat of obscenely severe penalties.”
How can we strike at this root problem? We can protest the laws which are unfairly restricting us online. Importantly, we need to fight for the speech of others, even if we may disagree with it or feel there's no relation to us. We need to ask for all government institutions and courts to act with enough transparency so that we can evaluate their actions.
More and more Guy Fawkes masks are spotted in cities across the world in response to bills like SOPA and ACTA. Proxies help route around blocks in the meantime. Social news site Reddit is allowing you to help define and push the Free Internet Act. Global blackouts highlight particulary unfair laws. The Electronic Frontier Foundation tries to defend our digital rights. Many blogs, like Boing Boing or Waxy, point out digital political issues; Matt Cutts, working for Google, often covers censorship in his blog. Some try to build an alternative internet. When we are monitored, we can monitor back and report on what is being censored; Chilling Effects lists takedown notices. The Creative Commons movement offers alternative copyrights. Google, while often complying with censorship requests, offers a transparency report. The Pirate Party in various countries can be supported to push for fairer online laws and less direct and indirect censorship. Wikipedia mentions, “The success of several Arab Spring revolutions offers a chance to establish greater freedom of expression in countries that were previously subject to very strict censorship, especially online.”
In the words of Akiva ben Joseph: The paper burns, but the words fly away.