In a world where information exchange has become an ongoing process, taking place on a large scale, with more and more information being churned out every day, issues of censorship and surveillance have also been brought to the forefront. This process, however, almost seems ironic when you come to think of it; where the internet was initially supposed to bring with it a greater sense of individual freedom, we now find instances where the government has tapped into this sphere as well.
The article thus provides an attempt to break down the meaning of censorship and surveillance and the relationship between them. The phenomenon is further looked at on a continuum of the good, where it can serve as a means for the protection of a country; the bad, where it adopts a form that makes us question freedom and privacy; and the ugly, where cases of extreme censorship and surveillance are explored in detail.
Censorship and surveillance – Two sides of the same coin
The terms censorship and surveillance, when we think of it today are virtually inseparable. Censorship may be referred to as the deliberate suppression of information, preventing it from getting out to the public. The government is more often than not, held responsible for indulging in practices of censoring content. This can take the form of internet censorship as well as news and entertainment media, which are two of the most influential sources of information, at the same time highly targeted sources for censorship.
Surveillance, on the other hand, can be described as an aid to censorship. In order to censor content, the government would have to intercept one’s lines of connectivity, inadvertently causing a breach of privacy. Surveillance, however, can exist independent of censorship. Although, when we speak of digital censorship or internet censorship the two often coincide.
The Good– A means of protection
The basic rationale for governments to resort to censorship related practices, keeping in mind the best interest of their citizens, would be for protection. The threat of cyberattacks, for instance, where a foreign virus enters a system and uses malicious code to obtain data, passwords and other important information, has been a concerning reason for governments to enable stronger censorship tools. This does become especially important today where more countries are moving into the digital world, trusting the internet with financial transactions and exchanging other important documents on the internet.
The process is also driven by a goal to maintain a certain ideal, the disruption of which could, in their belief, pose a threat to society. Censoring unlawful content and information, that could potentially push the public towards violence, is a form of defence in the national interest. That being said, these standards laid down by the government may be susceptible to being tweaked as per their convenience. For instance, what a government may deem harmful for their citizens may not necessarily be so in a more conventional sense. An example of this could be censoring certain comments or remarks that may be against a ruling government which could violate the norms of the ‘right to freedom of expression’ laid down in the constitution. We shall explore this aspect of censorship in detail in the next section.
The Bad– Questioning freedom and privacy
Access to information is often restricted or curtailed in some way through censorship, invariably challenging the freedom of choice, expression and principles of democracy as a whole. In the age of the internet, where information should flow freely, censorship serves, quite literally as a roadblock. By doing this, governments are depriving their citizens of the benefits of living in a globalised world.
Apart from freedom, through the means of surveillance one’s right to privacy may also be challenged. For instance, in a recent controversy, surrounding the Pegasus spyware, 1400 human rights activists’ and journalists’ personal messages were allegedly intercepted. The software belonged to the NSO Group, an Israeli software company which claims to have the ability to trace calls, read messages and intercept passwords through the spyware. These controversies hence, open the doors to a whole new set of questions, including those involving the government’s involvement and a clear breach of citizens’ privacy.
Another important thing to note about privacy in the web 2.0 era is that of its virtual inexistence. Data today is the new gold, and if not for governments, private companies are surely keying in on using consumer data to enable targeted ads. This becomes even more problematic when the information obtained through this surveillance is used to manipulate decision making especially with regard to political decisions.
The Ugly– Detailing extremes
As we can see, censorship and surveillance do have a dark side, where more often than not, ruling parties use them work in their favour, disrupting both freedom and privacy. There have been particular cases of countries however, that have taken censorship and surveillance practices to a whole new extreme. China, for instance, is infamously known for the ‘Great Firewall of China’, which is a legislative action taken by the People’s Republic of China was enforced to regulate the internet in China. This move has resulted in the Chinese population being denied access to foreign websites like Google, YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp to name a few. They instead have their own versions of these platforms like Weibo and WeChat operating, although that’s not where censorship in China ends. The censored content has gone to the extent of phrases being censored. These included words and phrases like, ‘I oppose’, ‘disagree’, ‘change the law’ and even, ‘Winnie the Pooh’ to name a few.
Russia is another example of an extreme case of censorship. The country recently enforced its Internet Sovereignty Law. The law operates on a similar principle as of China’s firewall, where they aim to control the internet and disconnect the access to foreign platforms. The law was supposedly passed as a means of protecting Russia from foreign cyberattacks. However, certain technocrats believe that it seems more like an attempt to censor information. That being said, Russia would never be able to obtain the level of censorship followed by China, simply because China’s firewall was built on state-run networks. Russia, on the other hand, has been enjoying free-flowing internet on a global network for thirty years now and undoing this would be extremely difficult to accomplish.
In sum, we can say that through most of the examples cited, censorship, especially by the government, does depict a picture of having dominant control on the type of ideology that they want their people to uphold, which is favourable to the ruling party. Apart from this, we can also see that the rising threat of cyber attacks could serve as additional motivation for governments to enable stronger censorship laws. However, the extremes that governments have resorted to surely limits the choices available in people’s hands, which if practised in democratic countries, would definitely shake the foundations of freedom laid by their constitutions.
Picture Courtesy- Quillete