This XKCD cartoon has been doing the rounds with various people agreeing vociferously with it. I’ve written quite a bit about the rise of private censorship before and yet we’re still having this argument and people are being extremely slow to wake up to the changing nature of communication and creativity in the modern world.
This very old fashioned and tightly defined idea of what censorship is, is no longer really useful. The government, despite all the (legitimate) worries about surveillance culture, is not really the main concern for anyone in the modern arena. What is the concern and what has the greatest impact is private censorship in the form of corporations and activist groups (social media being to reasoned discussion what the 24 hour news cycle is to informative current affairs).
As is pretty much usual with capitalism, power and wealth has accumulated in a handful of truly influential groups. Examples would include Google, Paypal, eBay, Facebook and Amazon. These companies have a hugely disproportionate effect on people’s ability to freely express themselves. Google is no longer a truly neutral search engine and on its other products content is filtered and removed. Ebay restricts the sale of legal materials on a ‘moral’ basis. Paypal has repeatedly tried to restrict payments for certain, legal, materials and has confiscated or delayed funds raised by crowdfunding. Facebook’s surveillance is far creepier and intrusive than any other and again, even legal material is censored and banished, even if privately shared or promoted. Amazon has de-listed certain titles, its crowdfunding arm has also cancelled and withdrawn perfectly legal projects.
Are there other channels? Yes. Are they as successful, as broadly available? No. Not by orders of magnitude. To any practical extent many of these channels – perhaps most especially PayPal – are the only game in town.
When it comes to activist groups, especially those calling themselves ‘progressive’, social media shrieking draws the attention of mainstream media desperately trying to remain relevant and lends power and voice to tone-deaf controversies such as Suey Park’s ‘#cancelcolbert’ or pointless campaigns such as No More Page 3. Worse is when these kinds of campaigns are base on lies, such as Gail Dines anti-pornography activities or those of the various anti sex work organisations, lies that drown out, censor and marginalise the voices of those genuinely in the know and involved in these things.
There is precedent for guaranteeing the rights of people in a private context.
We have the right, for example, not to be discriminated against by a business for our sexuality, gender, race or religion. Something that businesses used to be free to do. While there are some backward steps – such as people within businesses being given permission in some countries and states to refuse services based on religious objections (contraception provision etc) but overall there has been progress in guaranteeing basic rights in the private as well as the public sphere and free expression should be included in that, in my opinion.
That isn’t to say anyone should be forced to see anything they don’t want to – though this attitude is creating dangerous echo chambers – just that those providing services should not be able to censor and control in contravention of one of the basic and most universal of human rights (enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights).
By way of example, say you host internet fora as a company. The individual fora should be able to enforce their own rules and standards for who can use them and what’s acceptable behaviour, but in order to preserve free expression communications companies, such as hosts, should be beholden to host legal material. When it comes to payment companies the idea that they can steal people’s money or block payments for legitimate, legal purposes also needs to be challenged. How can conservative groups that claim to be in support of a free market also support the idea that a person can’t spend their own money on whatever legal goods they please?
This outdated view of what constitutes censorship leaves the door open for huge amounts of injustice from the silencing of dissent in important social debates to the denial of services and the constriction of a free internet to an end to online anonymity and the opportunities for free expression it presents.
Think twice before you smugly, and erroneously, say ‘censorship is just a government thing’ and consider what – exactly – you’re excusing.