Internet censorship is defined as the suppression or control of what a person can view, publish, or access when they are online under their own initiative.
People and organizations can engage in the practice of self-censorship at any time. There are religious, moral, and even commercial reasons why such a practice would take place. It can also happen because of intimidation or fear of potential consequences.
When censorship occurs at a national level, then the reasons for this lack of access involve political manipulation, propaganda, and oppression more than an authentic approach from a foundation of morality. It can also occur in anticipation or response to specific events, such as a riot, protest, or election.
There are several advantages and disadvantages of internet censorship to consider as we move toward a future where information management becomes a critical component of life.
List of the Advantages of Internet Censorship
1. It provides another layer of security against identity theft.
Before the internet became available to most homes, identity thieves had to steal mail, dive into dumpsters, and have information from bills or paperwork that you threw away. If you were proactive about protecting these documents, then it was virtually impossible to have thieves try to compromise your finances. Some would even use phone scams as a way to discover the needed personal information to open accounts.
Internet censorship restricts the ability of identity thieves to gather data about you. That means you can protect your medical records, Social Security number, and driver’s license from being compromised. It offers tools to law enforcement that makes it easier to stop or restrict these behaviors.
2. Censorship can identify specific illegal activities.
You can find a lot of great stuff on the internet today, but there are also some corners of it that show off the darker sides of human existence. Exploitation, abuse, illegal drugs, and much more are all available online if you know what you’re trying to find. Placing limits on these actions or expressions is a form of internet censorship because it seeks to protect vulnerable populations. The search mechanisms and firewalls that are in place for these items can identify their location and remove the average person’s access from them.
3. It adds a measure of security to our daily lives.
We all create petabytes of data every day that tell others about our personal choices, preferences, and tastes. All of this information can be used for positive or negative outcomes. If you share information on social media that shows you are on vacation, then that is an open invitation to a thief who sees that your home is free and clear. Now imagine what would be possible when your schedule is posted online, what your favorite foods are, and how much money you make.
If you take this concept to a national level, other countries could discover information about defensive capabilities, weapons schematics, and other critical items. That is when censorship occurs almost everywhere at some level, even in democratic countries. There are some things that all people don’t need to know.
4. Internet censorship can reduce the levels of false data found online.
Up to 60% of the internet traffic that occurs every day is human. The rest of it comes from bots, AI interfaces, crawlers, spiders, and other forms of technology. There are a lot of ways to create pages, posts, and videos that make false information seem real. Deepfake videos can manipulate images and audio to make it sound like someone is saying or doing something real when they are not.
It has been possible to manipulate video for several decades. In Forrest Gump, filmmakers inserted the image of Tom Hanks with footage of John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, and then manipulated his mouth movements to make it seem real. This effort took a lot of time, skill, and money. Deepfake tech could let anyone weaponize imagery for political or malicious purposes. Censorship can stop it.
5. It gives society an opportunity to place common-sense limits on content consumption.
ABC13 Eyewitness News in Houston put together a list of the 10 most shocking moments captured by Facebook Live. When used correctly, this streaming feature lets people share with family and friends moments that they might miss otherwise. It can also become a tool to express hatred or show violence.
Robert Godwin, Sr. was killed when Steve Stephens shot the 74-year-old at point-blank range with the entire incident streamed. A 20-year-old man hung his 11-month-old daughter in an abandoned hotel before killing himself on Facebook. Four people in Chicago were charged with kidnapping and the brutal beating of a man with special needs. Restricting access to this content can help society set up some ground rules to teach appropriate behaviors and interactions.
6. Censorship gives us an opportunity to be respectful of other cultures.
Many countries have laws in place that ban websites that threaten national security, distribute copyrighted material illegally, or show images of children engaged in sexual or violent conduct. Several nations have cultural rules that may not apply to the rest of the world. Internet censorship creates a system where we can all respect one another’s life perspectives while still providing information access to those who require it.
7. It forces companies to take content down that could be harmful to others.
The Godwin incident on Facebook was reposted and viewed millions of times before the platform was able to take the footage down. His grandson, Ryan, was on Twitter begging people to stop sharing the video. “That is my grandfather,” he wrote, “show some respect.” Mark Zuckerberg once wrote a 5,700-word piece that outlined measures to address the challenges of violent content. Beatings, suicide, rapes, and child abuse still continue appearing on the platform. Offering this performance aspect of behavior maximizes the impact of the perpetrator. They can distribute with just the touch of a button.
By implementing a series of internet censorship protocols, it would be possible to stop this content from being shared. It takes responsibility away from the company, who might use the incident as a way to promote themselves. That effort could then reduce the exposure of young people to items they don’t need to see.
List of the Disadvantages of Internet Censorship
1. It allows a government to control the population.
After the Green Revolution in 2009, the state of freedom of expression in Iran entirely collapsed. Anyone who went online to disagree with the state of affairs in the country was hauled away, arrested, or worse. Even bloggers and social media posters fell into this category. Many were sentenced for crimes against the state or their religion, with a few even facing capital charges. Monitors slow connections or shots of access whenever there is a fear of organization or protest.
Even with sanctions in place, the knowledge that Iran has of how the internet works makes it easy for them to circumvent many of the measures. That also makes it almost impossible for its citizens to use TOR or other methods of anonymous browsing.
2. Censorship works to control the flow of news.
Censorship can be helpful when you’re trying to stop the flow of fake news across social media channels. When governments use this process to prevent access to relevant current events, then the narrative switches to one of population control. China has a large group of monitors that scour the internet to find issues or stories that could be problematic for the government’s official response. That’s why there are Chinese versions of social media instead of YouTube, Twitter, or Google.
When foreign entities can find workarounds for the issue, then the Chinese government has the authority to shut down the internet for an entire region. They took that action in 2009 when ethnic riots were happening in Xinjiang.
3. It shifts the responsibility of conduct from the person to the government.
When there are rules or regulations governing the conduct of censorship, then individuals are no longer responsible for their actions. The government (or other oversight entity) takes on that role by declaring what is safe to view and the sites that one must avoid. There is no longer a need to make personal decisions any more in this environment. Someone could legitimately justify their actions, even illegal ones, by saying that no one in authority had told them to stop.
This disadvantage makes it easier for governments or dictators to rule with an iron fist. When someone allows another to rule over specific areas of their life without consequence, then it is easier to give up more control over time.
4. There is a power dynamic in society that forms when internet censorship is present.
Internet censorship might restrict access to harmful data, but it also creates a relationship where one specific group has power over another. That people who are in charge can filter what the average visitor gets to see when they start browsing online. Dictating what people can or cannot do is not a definition of freedom. It creates a dynamic where one person or group is eventually in charge of everything. Someone is in charge where they don’t need to report to anyone. Once you reach that stage, their opinion becomes regulations – and that allows them to enforce their will onto others.
5. There is a cost to internet censorship that must be considered.
Each country that decides to place censorship rules on their population will spend an average of $2.5 billion each year to enforce those regulations. That means the global effort to restrict information from individuals can total close to $100 billion. Since it is the government that imposes these stipulations, taxpayers are the ones who end up footing the bill. That means all of us end up paying for our ability to let other people control the data we see without really having a way to alter the outcome.
6. Censorship disrupts the freedom to conduct conversations or business.
About 40 governments around the world regularly process criminal charges against individuals for content or conduct they find online. The World Economic Forum notes that 25% of today’s population with access to the internet lives somewhere that censors what they can see in some way. Simple actions, like browsing Facebook, are taken for granted in places without censorship, but many people do not have this ability. The average sentence given to someone because of conduct found disruptive by the government is over a year long.
7. Censorship on the internet limits the national economy.
The Great Firewall in China might be one of the world’s most famous forms of internet censorship, but it is not the only way that governments stop entrepreneurs from pursuing a good idea. When everyone must receive permission to publish the content they want, then they are not in full control over their economic opportunities. Shutting down the internet cost countries about $2.4 billion in total economic activity.
The costliest results came from disruptions to specific services and apps, accounting for almost half of the lost activity. National and subnational internet disruptions reduce the levels of economic development for future months as well. Online transactions account for 6% of the entire U.S. economy, which is a figure shared by more developed nations. Losing that amount can be devastating to local communities.
8. Online information censorship creates lower intelligence levels.
Blogger Zakariya Rashid Hassad was arrested in 2011 in Bahrain for inciting hatred, sharing false news, the promotion of sectarianism, and calling for an overthrow of the government in online forums. Several journalists and editors have found themselves detained, imprisoned, or deported from the country because of the information they shared online. Many regimes use content removal as a way to create a structure of internet censorship, forcing people to comply or face jail time or worse if they refuse to do so. A blogger was even shot and killed for filming a protest in that country.
Governments often use the processes of censorship as a way to lower the intelligence levels of their population. If there is a lack of awareness present in society, then it is easier to manipulate outcomes.
9. Censorship restricts the right of people to share an opinion.
Even though hate speech is morally abhorrent and ethically questionable, the U.S. Supreme Court says that there is a freedom to share it. Attacks that involve race, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, and more happen every day when you look at social media. We even have late-night comedians having celebrities read “mean tweets” about themselves shared by people online.
The reality of internet censorship is that we could try to restrict everything that is offensive, but then we’d end up with nothing left to share. Some categories are not protected by the court ruling, such as a call to commit violence or a direct threat against a person, business, or group. We must remain vigilant to maintain our rights while placing common-sense restrictions on actions that could lead to harm.
10. Countries use internet censorship to control specific global narratives.
It is not unusual for governments in the Middle East to refer to the United States as “Satan” or worse. The goal of these actions is to show their people that Americans are not to be trusted. It creates an us vs. them dynamic that officials exploit for their personal benefit. When content is available online that proves this approach is false, then censorship is the only way to restore the “balance” that the government attempts to create.
Saudi Arabia sent a content takedown request to Netflix regarding an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj after receiving a complaint that the comedy show violated the cybercrimes law of the country. It discusses the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and was highly critical of the nation and its relationship with Silicon Valley and the United States.
Direct censorship of the internet is prohibited by the First Amendment in the United States. The only exception to this rule involves obscene content, such as child pornography. Even when laws were passed to regulate a child’s ability to access these materials, they were found by the judicial system to be unconstitutional.
Most countries try to take a common-sense approach to the idea of censorship. Protecting a person’s identity when needed, stopping exploitation, and preventing people from coming to harm are the top priorities. It is when a government oversteps these boundaries that the restrictions become problematic.
When looking at the advantages and disadvantages of internet censorship, there will always be some people who believe that nothing should be off-limits. There will be governments that manipulate online content to their advantage. What we must provide is an approach that protects vulnerable populations while encouraging entrepreneurs to continue pursuing great ideas.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.