The Nature of Political Censorship

 

When it comes to internet censorship, of course the first apparent problem is the infringement of basic human rights, including freedom of speech and the sharing of information. However, when it comes to practical attempts to censor a mercurial beast such as the internet, it's worth breaking down some of the more subtle rights that are being attacked. For example, one of the more subtle aspects is how the authorities who wish to impose the censorship go about the act of choosing the specific material that will be suppressed in the first place, or labelled inappropriate and kept from the population. The nature of censorship (including the 'logic' of censorship detection) automatically raises the question of just what defines offensive material, and when you're a government in need of a method of retaining power over your country, drawing the line can be neither easy nor straightforward.
 
Currently, the Middle East is being examined more rigorously than in previous times as a result of the religious furore and subsequent protests over YouTube's refusal to censor the clip entitled “The Innocence of Muslims.” One of the most poignant quotes from Ars Technica's report on UK protests in favour of the censorship comes from a Google spokesperson, which emphasizes the difficulty and magnitude of censoring the internet as a global entity: “What's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere," a spokesman told the Telegraph. "This video – which is widely available on the Web – Is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube."
 
The depth of the problem was revealed in this particular instance because it demonstrated how ideas on the internet translated into physical damage being incurred in the real world: the International Business Times reports that dozens died in a number of diverse countries across the Middle East after involvement in demonstrations regarding the film's blasphemous and culturally offensive nature. Countries who have a predominantly Muslim population actually banned it, claiming variously that it would prevent the further occurrence of violence, that it was creating world-wide bias against Muslims, or that it was simply downright offensive. 
 
The irony of Russia's objection to the film is somewhat confusing after a head teacher in Russia's North Caucasus recently banned five Muslim girls from wearing hijabs in class as it violated the school policy of attending in secular clothes only. The outcome, which will be decided by a district prosecutor (to whom the children's parents complained) once a legal assessment of the incident has been carried out within thirty days of it occurring, may show that the headmaster has broken the law if, as the Russian Islamic clergy claim, there is no law that could apply to the banning of specific apparel.
 
Russia's reaction is also particularly relevant in light of their thinly veiled attemps to quash any challenges to the political status quo. Legislation was passed in July by the Russian Parliament's lower house which purported to be a way to protect children from images and media of an adult nature, such as pornography and drug abuse. This involves the government blocking specific domain names and IP addresses by putting them on a blacklist (without a court order), essentially destroying an important tool used by those organizing any anti-government protests while also neatly trampling anything else they didn't approve of. 
 
Alexander Morozov, “a popular blogger and head of Moscow’s Center for Media Studies think-tank” pointed out that laws such as this are always touted as a benevolent move by a government concerned for the welfare of its population (especially the children), but also coincidentally fundamentally “hit[s] the opposition and freedom of political expression.” 
 
However, the objection to the censorship of ideas is not quite as universal as might be expected; while the idea of the Russian government having “a lever that it can now activate for an increasing range of reasons” has led to complaints from the Kremlin's human rights watchdog, it seems to have garnered support from the people of Russia, with the majority of those surveyed by the Levada Centre in favor of the idea of internet censorship. 
 
While the trend of governments requesting the removal of content is on the rise according to Google's 'Transparency Report' conducted in the latter half of 2011, it would seem that the efficacy of the requests will depend on legislation that will vary from country to country and therefore be hard to enforce. As long as the internet exists as a global network that reaches a variety of divided global societies, the censoring of ideas will continue to be a source of frustration for both the population and the governments of the world.

 

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