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What is Internet Censorship and should we be concerned?

05/08/2019

The internet is all around us, being used constantly by people all around the world. Living in the UK, it's easy to assume everyone has the same unrestricted access to the web, but some countries have exceptionally strict control over how the internet is used and what people are allowed to see and interact with. Internet censorship refers to when a government controls how the internet is used in their country and what their citizens are allowed to access on the web. In the UK, the web is predominantly uncensored in-line with the Human Rights Act of 1998, which dictates that individuals should have freedom of expression; some content is removed or filtered however to comply with the law or to keep children and vulnerable people safe for example.

The EU recently implemented Article 13 - a copyright directive that focused on how online sharing services should handle copyrighted content. The article has proved extremely controversial since it requires tech companies to check all content that is uploaded to their website for copyright infringement, which is very difficult to implement for large companies (and small businesses alike), who may not have the money to invest in the resources needed to check these uploads. Tech giants like YouTube and Wikipedia both launched campaigns to try to stop the bill going through, with some also arguing this is infringing on their right to freedom of speech and expression and could therefore violate the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights.

China has some of the strictest internet censorship laws in the world, collectively known as the Golden Shield Project, or the Great Firewall. The internet is licenced and controlled by the Chinese government, who keep a database of internet users and what they do online as a means of surveillance for national security and maintaining social order. The result of such measures means that the population can only access what the government allows them to. Many of the 1.4 billion internet users in China reportedly aren’t even aware of Facebook or Google, as they simply can’t access them or read news about them. The government employs at least 50,000 people to monitor and enforce the censorship, banning websites they disapprove of and filtering what appears on search engines.

New Zealand offers us another example of internet censorship when, following the recent terrorist attack at a mosque, the government quickly stepped in to stop the video of the shooter being shared around the world by blocking access to certain websites that were hosting the videos. Even though this was motivated by good intentions, critics have argued it's a worrying example of how quickly this kind of ban can be brought into effect without any kind of debate. The British government has in fact published a White Paper that suggests social media companies should be forced to take down “unacceptable material” that “undermines our democratic values and principals” within 24 hours.

Discussions about how to prevent 'fake news' from spreading online are on-going between the British government and social media companies, particularly focusing on anti-vaccination posts. The government is also looking to put together a 'code of practice' for social media websites to reduce online harm, fake news, extremist content, the sale of illegal goods, cyberbullying and harassment. The code will stipulate that the platform itself will be held responsible for any content uploaded that goes against these guidelines and a regulator will decide how to deal with any issues.

Thankfully it doesn’t seem likely the UK will impose tougher internet censorship any time soon, however this is an important topic that will continue to surface as the global community becomes more aware of the way information is controlled. 

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