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Online censorship, it would seem, is no longer the preserve of governments bandying around acronyms like SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA. Google and Twitter both recently announced censorship measures that are going to be put in place on Blogger and Twitter respectively and one isn’t wrong in thinking that the days of the internet being an open and free place to find and share information are over.
Twitter’s censorship of its tweets is in accordance with the laws of the countries in which people use the service. So if (any) Twitter users reside in China (where Twitter is banned) they are prone to the laws governing Twitter in that region. Speaking of which, Cheng Jianping was sentenced to one year in a Chinese labour camp for commanding followers to attack the Japanese pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo on Twitter.
In order for Twitter to censor a tweet, which it said it would never do: a complaint about an “illegal tweet” needs to be successfully processed by Twitter which will then inform users residing in that territory that the tweet is censored. Countries like Brazil are getting in on the act, accusing Twitter of aiding and abetting criminals who use the service to avoid roadblocks in which they might get caught. Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO, has offered an alternative argument, stating that in-country censorship of tweets actually allows Twitter more freedom of speech as tweets that used to be removed or censored globally are now only censored in the country that deems them to be illegal. He says:
“There’s been no change in our stance or attitude or policy with respect to content on Twitter, what we announced is a greater capability we now have. Now, when we are issued a valid legal order in a country in which we operate, such as a DMCA takedown notice, we are able to leave the content up for as many people around the world as possible, while still operating within the local law. You can’t operate in these countries and choose the laws you want to abide by.”
When questioned as to whether this is a proactive or reactive stance, Costolo replied by saying that:
“This is purely a reactive capability to what we determine to be a valid and applicable legal order in a country in which we operate. We’re fully blocked in Iran and China. And I don’t see the current environment in either country being one in which we could go and operate anytime soon.”
On Google’s side of the Great Firewall it’s agreed, in a similar fashion to Twitter, to censor content on its Blogger platform in countries where the censorship is required, it will do this by having in-country domains for its blogs.
In-country censorship by a tech giant is a complicit act that shows just how far lofty morals and disruptive technology goes in the face of losses to revenue. Google was (as of 5 December 2011) the third largest generator of advertising revenue in China in 2011, amassing US$640-million in a calendar year — that’s 1/6 of Facebook’s Global Advertising Revenue.
The argument that localised domains allow the media owner to continue promoting “free expression” whilst at the same time being “responsible” in its publishing role is flawed in the sense that expression isn’t free when it is governed and “responsibility” depends on what perspective one adopts in reference to oppressive regimes. Liberally, one could assume that these tech giants are complicit in the muzzling of their products because they are complying with requests emanating from local laws in those countries. The media owners argue that the removal of the content on a per-country basis diminishes the censorship effects to the fewest amounts of people possible; but it also hinders the amplification of the problem: those oppressive regimes are stopping users from having dissident voices.