The ongoing evolution of censorship

Regrettably, too often we hear news reports outlining the stories of humans living under comprehensive censorship in authoritarian states. The Middle East recently experienced periods of government-mandated shutdown of the internet in attempts to suppress the insurrection of the Arab Spring. Stories of reporters whisked away after publishing opinionated editorials or investigative research keep Russia ranked dangerously low in terms of journalistic freedom. China’s paranoid methods in their attempt to control the web leads to what Chinese citizens call the “50 Cent Party,” whose members are paid by the government every time they remove dissident comments from message boards or post opinions that reinforce the infallibility of the communist party.

In light of this, score one for capitalist democracy. The freedom from persecution that U.S. citizens enjoy rivals that of most any industrialized state. Naturally, the system is not perfect and sometimes the government exercises questionable authority in monitoring and accusing citizens of illegal or questionable activity. The Patriot Act still operates in some manifestation, as last May Obama authorized four more years of roving wiretaps and access to library records.

Nevertheless, the good outweighs the bad, and private citizens and businesses regularly defend their rights to promote openness. Recently Google revealed that local law enforcement asked for the removal of YouTube videos (a Google subsidiary) which document the violence perpetrated by police officers in Oakland, Ca. last week. Video of tear gas thrown into Occupy Oakland protestors depicts a scene of pure chaos, resulting in many injuries against protestors, some critical. Google denied the removal request, citing their commitment to transparency.

It is calming to know that one doesn’t have to comb the underbelly of the web to find these videos. YouTube should proudly host amateur footage of protests, documentation of riots and violent confrontations between citizens and law enforcement. It is a testament to liberal democracy that a country can function without successfully suppressing the dispersal of eyewitness accounts in egregious actions done by employees of the state.

Moreover, even if Google caved and pulled the videos, they would not be lost. If the internet has proven anything it is its lasting power in retention of information. When Wikileaks was forcibly shut down through government intervention, mirrors of the site instantly popped up with the same data. Supposing whistleblower sites like Wikileaks and OpenLeaks fail, and the mirrors are suppressed effectively, individual bloggers could continue to publish the controversies, whether anonymously or not. And if those bloggers are threatened, groups like Anonymous itself will take action, and activists can communicate through IRC channels and PGP encrypted emails. In the present day, if you need to find something, you can find it.

The revolutions we witnessed this spring successfully utilized social networking in their organization against authoritarianism. Cell phones are quickly becoming powerful mobile computers, and have been used extensively in coordinating protestors in the Middle East. Hundreds of “Occupy X” videos crop up daily, alongside thousands of tweets and links to additional information. Instead of passing out pamphlets and nailing leaflets to trees, modern day protests rely on the vast communication network we take for granted every day. This revolutionary technology affects revolutionary activity so rapidly the possibilities for movement by the masses are now almost completely unpredictable. Whether countries like the U.S. continue to comply with the rights of freedom of speech and of the press, we live in a new era of global transparency and interaction. I agree with the chants of the Occupy Wall Street protestors when accosted by police: “The whole world is watching!”

John McGovern is a Viewpoints editor for the Voice and can be reached for comment at