Build the Firewall
China’s Great Firewall, the most massive state-run internet censorship program, is one of the technological wonders of the world. While most in the U.S. would immediately dismiss this censorship as tyranny against free speech, our own American internet is heavily censored.
China achieves this incredible feat of censorship with two processes, a team of tens of thousands of human workers who manually screen and scrub Chinese social media and an automated system that flags and prevents the publication of suspect social media posts until deemed appropriate by the state. Furthermore, entire websites, like Google and Facebook, are blocked from the Chinese web with a nationwide portcullis.
Behind the Great Firewall, mentions of the Tiananmen Square riots and Tank Man are heavily censored. It’s almost impossible to find the iconic photograph without a VPN. More worrisome, disapproval of Xi Jinping’s removal of term limits was so heavily censored that even the letter “N” was temporarily banned in the People’s Republic. (A simple VPN can help you escape censorship – but not everyone uses a VPN.)
A study published in Science came to a simple conclusion. “Censorship in China is used to muzzle those outside government who attempt to spur the creation of crowds for any reason—in opposition to, in support of, or unrelated to the government.” The study suggested that it was not the expression of opinions but the incitement of action that China actively censors.
Censorship is a little different here in “the greatest country on Earth.” For example, we primarily rely on benevolent corporations to do our stifling. Those corporations, like Google and Facebook, come up with their own community standards to censor content. Those community standards are usually built from scratch to deter illegal activity, violence, pornography, harassment, and defamation as well as racial, religious, sexual, and gender-based discrimination. The enforcement of these standards, based on the concept of “protected groups,” often leads to strange headlines like “Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men From Hate Speech But Not Black Children” – an interesting and nuanced read with an inflammatory clickbait headline.
But the main form of censorship in America is copyright infringement as hosting copyrighted content can come along with hefty DMCA fines. We feel that our freedom of expression gloriously saved the American internet from censorship when we shut down the contentious SOPA and PIPA bills. However, the shutdown of MegaUpload showed that the government can easily enforce IP law and censor the internet without the terms described in those two bills.
One of own benevolent overlords, Mark Zuckerberg, supported censoring incendiary posts when he defended his platform’s policies by saying, “people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content.” This propensity toward sensationalism should be clear to readers who have watched news and media evolve to the polarizing force that it is today. We have seen divisive, polarizing, and often false social media posts incite disturbed individuals to rash actions time and time and time again. Some people can’t handle the power of social media.
We have seen political internet censorship used to dispel uprisings during the Arab Spring and more recently in Venezuela. These are the instances we normally think of when we imagine the downsides of internet censorship. However, I would argue that we could have benefited from a little political censorship during the run-up to the 2016 elections. Fake news articles, divisive and racially motivated memes, and coordinated, Russian state-funded attacks might have been stopped dead in their tracks with a little suppression by Uncle Sam.
Social media now stands as the most potentially divisive force on the planet. Russia has a track-record of weaponizing social media; this threat is mirrored by their intense social media censorship. We see that our internet platforms have some good reasons to censor the internet. This argument was stated 100 years ago by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” The question now becomes whether we leave this power in the hands of corporations or instead in the hands of the government.
In the hands of corporations, platforms are not incentivized to censor inciteful material. Divisive statements are clickbait that stir unrest and even breed powerful echo chambers that become stable installed user bases for a platform. This perverse incentive prevents corporate censors of the internet from taking a stand against incendiary posts .
By simultaneously censoring all platforms within the country, China’s internet censorship model destroys the echo chamber effect that has polarized American politics. This simply can’t be achieved under America’s current corporate censor model. For this reason, we should build our own great firewall.
We will be censored on the internet. We just need to decide who will be our censor.