Earlier this month, the UK government unveiled a tool that can accurately detect jihadist content and block it from being viewed. This is obviously good news for tackling extremism and protecting sensitive eyes from seeing morbid content. It will prevent deranged messages from being spread and the confused from following delusional propaganda, which again, is a middle finger to extreme terrorists such as the much-despised ISIS.
I, as much as the next person, gain no thrill from viewing twisted, abusive videos, but there is a growing concern that such a tool blocking us from seeing such content is like pulling wool over our eyes on what is really going on in the world.
Such censorship raises several questions: what counts as ‘extremist’ and where do we draw the line between not conforming to societal expectations and being ‘extreme’?
Gandhi was once considered ‘extreme’, by some, for protesting against the controversial Rowlatt Act, which allowed the British to imprison anyone they suspected of terrorism without trial. We can see why Gandhi rebelled, and in hindsight it was for the greater good, but nonetheless his stance from the British point of view was once deemed extremist.
I’m not saying that in the year 2050 we may be thanking ISIS, but blocking a controversial voice can impede the development of a better society.
There are several arguments around this. Restricting access to information is somewhat an infringement of democratic freedoms. And what about our rights to freedom of speech? Content constructed to impede governments and constitutions of free speech are subject to judicial review, especially in the US.
And as previously discussed, we have some rights when it comes to freedom of speech, but they won’t always soften the blow if we fall head first when speaking out on something controversial.
Interestingly enough, in a survey conducted by the Internet Society, 86% of the 10,789 participants strongly agreed with freedom of expression on the internet.
Nonetheless, tying our hands behind our backs to prevent us from speaking out is a debate which will never end; some will agree, others will disagree. Society is everchanging and today’s madman could become next year’s saviour… that is if our internet browser will allow us to read the madman’s words.
Is this a step back into 1984?
Blocking extremist propaganda is censorship at its best and the more we read into it, the more we admire Orwell for potentially predicting the future.
Censorship mechanisms which are imposed by governments often not only prevents certain discourse, but also identifies and punishes those who engage in what authorities may perceive as the wrong, or a form of distasteful, discourse.
“You have to be odd to be number one”, said Dr Seuss, but I am not sure he knew that being the black sheep of the herd could translate to jailtime[i].
So, what is ‘Big Brother’ watching out for? Commonly censored materials include those:
- Displaying excessive or graphic violence;
- Containing matters of a mature nature depicting persons in various states of undress or materials intended to illicit prurient reactions from those viewing, and
- Containing matters which must be kept secret for national security or public safety.
An example of upcoming internet censorship laws are the reforms to the Digital Economy Act; in April the UK will see legislative reforms regarding online pornography play pretend father for children by protecting them from viewing explicit content.
In the UK, there are no government restrictions on access to the Internet. Individuals and groups routinely use the Internet, to express a wide range of views.[ii] The notion for filtering content originally derived from manifesto commitments concerning “the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood” given by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2010.[iii]
However, this did see an adversary effect, where many sites often providing advice, such as child protection services and drug and sexual health advice being blocked. Even though censored websites are more regulated now by people than solely ISPs and AI, will hiding content save our children? Probably not. One day they will be exposed to it all and mollycoddling them throughout their teens may result in a detrimental ‘Arkangelic’ episode.
Yet it seems that, on such situations, governments are yet to provide a compelling reason for online censorship laws other than for common ‘decency’. Where there are clear positive intentions to censorship, it most likely will not change anything: where there is a will there is a way, and extremists will find a way to get their message across.
Even so, there is an estimated six billion hours of footage uploaded on YouTube each month, content goes unseen more often than not, and we click on things we want to see. And remember: not everyone who watches terrorist videos, actually becomes an extremist.