Rebecca MacKinnon’s “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom” (2012) is an interesting read on online speech. Having read the book, I will be familiarizing readers with some of the themes discussed in it.
In Part I, we will discuss censorship in the context of authoritarian governments.
In Part II, we will be dealing with the practices of democratic governments vis-à-vis online speech.
In Part III, we shall discuss the influence of corporations on online speech.
Essentially, the discussion will revolve around the interactions between the three stakeholders: netizens, corporations providing internet-based products and governments (both autocratic and democratic). Each of the stakeholders have varied interests or agendas and work with or against in each other based on the situation.
Governments wish to control corporations’ online platforms to pursue political agendas and corporations wish to attract users and generate profits, while also having to acquiesce to government demands to access markets. The ensuing interactions, involving corporations and governments, affect netizens’ online civil liberties across the world.
PART I: AUTHORITARIAN GOVERNMENTS (THE CHINESE MODEL)
“Networked Authoritarianism” is the exercise of authoritarianism, by a government, through the control over the network used by the citizens. MacKinnon explains the phenomenon through an explanation of the Chinese government’s exercise of control over the Chinese networks.
Interestingly, the Chinese citizenry is unaware of the infamous Tiananmen Square protests. The government, with compliant corporates (in order to access Chinese markets, corporations comply), works in an opaque manner to manipulate information reaching the people. The people aren’t even aware of the fact of manipulation!
The government does allow discussion, but within the limits prescribed by it. This is the concept of “Authoritarian Deliberation”. Considerable discussion occurs on the “e-parliament” (a website where the Chinese public is allowed to make suggestions on issues of policy) and the Chinese government has stated that it cares about public opinion, but any discussion that could potentially lead to unrest is screened out. In other words, the government is engendering a false sense of freedom amongst its populace.
Now, let us have a look at the modus operandi of such Chinese censorship.
Firstly, The Chinese networks are connected to the global networks through 8 gateways. Each of the gateways contain data filters that restrict websites that contain specific restricted key words. As a slight aside, it is pertinent to note that western corporations, such as Forcepoint and Narus, also provide software that assist authoritarian governments in censorship and surveillance.
Now, the Chinese netizens can access global networks through certain technical means. But there exists a lack of incentive to do so as the Chinese have their own, government compliant, versions of Twitter, Facebook and Google (Weibo; RenRen & Kaixin001: Facebook; Baidu respectively) with which the people are content. Given the size of the Chinese market, investors abound and consequently, there doesn’t exist a dearth of products.
Secondly, as mentioned earlier, the Chinese government forces corporations to manage their platforms in compliance with the government’s standards. Content from offshore servers of non-compliant corporations are blocked by the data filters. But if a corporation intends to work in China, it will have to self-regulate and ensure that platforms are compliant with the censorship policy.
Thirdly, in addition to censorship, the Chinese government also manipulates discussions through “Astroturfing”. Originally a marketing term, it refers to the practice of paying people a certain fee to propagate views beneficial to the payee. The 50 Cent Army (etymology from fee per post) is a common term used to refer to those paid by the Chinese government.
Apart from Astroturfing, there also exist people who voluntarily spread propaganda on the internet. While the Chinese government can disavow knowledge of their activities, they are given special treatment by the government to carry out their agendas.
Through the approach followed above, the Chinese government has manipulated its populace with wondrous success. From the example above we have learnt that mere access to the internet doesn’t ensure political reform. It depends on the authoritarian government’s ability to manipulate the networks. There exist other examples of other countries successfully preventing unrest through manipulation of speech on its networks.
Censorship in Other Countries
Iran, too, has successfully manipulated networks. The Iranian government was able to restrict communications and debilitate the Green Movement, an uprising against the president at the time. Even if the government isn’t actually monitoring the communications, if enough people believe it is doing so, the government will have achieved its purpose.
The Russian government, instead of using online tools to restrict content, restricts speech through offline methods in the form of defamation laws and threat of physical consequences. Even the Chinese take offline retaliatory measures. We will discuss one such example (Shi Tao) in Part III.
Now, let us look at a few of the approaches or policies that democratic countries have adopted to tackle censorship in repressive regimes.
Approaches to Tackling Authoritarian Censorship
Initially, policies attempted to ensure that netizens were able to access an uncensored internet. Access to an uncensored internet was expected to create political consciousness and consequently, revolution against repressive regimes. Hence, government funding was aimed towards circumvention technology that would facilitate netizens in accessing the uncensored cyberspace. Ironically though, while the public treasury being used to fund circumvention technology, American corporations are aiding censorship by providing the censorship technology to authoritarian regimes.
But there exist other approaches as well. Certain policy experts, with the belief that free speech precedes democracy, are in favour of encouraging citizens, under repressive regimes, to host and develop content. Advocates of this approach argue that such an approach would be more beneficial towards building communities of dissent as opposed to attempting to provide them access to offshore content. Further, such an approach doesn’t portray the U.S. as an enemy of the authoritarian state, leading to lesser complications, since the content will be generated by the citizens of the repressive state itself.
Lastly, some experts have suggested that democratic countries should make efforts to set their own house in order, instead of interfering with other regimes. Laws, in even the most democratic of countries, could be draconian. For instance, the U.K. was set to allow for disconnection of a user’s internet access, if she or he violates copyright thrice. And these laws serve as a justification for authoritarian regimes to censor.
Here, using Chinese censorship as an example, we have attempted to understand (a) the concepts of “networked authoritarianism” and “authoritarian deliberation”, (b) the online and offline methods of censorship employed by authoritarian governments (gateway regulation, corporate compliance, “astroturfing”, et cetera) and (c) approaches adopted by democracies to tackle censorship by repressive regimes.
In Part II, we will discuss the effects of actions by democratic governments on online speech.
Image taken from here.