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Internet blacklisting is taking off across the world

Once relegated to the world’s most repressive dictatorships, internet filtering has taken off as a tool for an increasing number of governments around the world to censor access to content deemed inappropriate by government authorities. New Zealand was the latest to join this growing trend, when several major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) blocked access to selected websites believed to host copies of the attack video or other details about the attack. While there may be broad agreement regarding the removal of a terror video, the use of ISPs to enforce nation-wide content bans raises questions about whether such practices will expand across the world to include other content governments wish to restrict.

In the aftermath of the New Zealand attack, several major Internet Service Providers across New Zealand blocked access nation-wide to an opaque list of websites believed to be either hosting copies of the attack video or sensitive details of the attack. The secret nature of the blacklist and opaque manner in which the companies decided which websites to add to the list or how to appeal an incorrect listing, echoed similar systems deployed around the world in countries like China.

China’s famed Great Firewall operates very similarly, with the government blocking websites across the country in a similarly opaque fashion and with little recourse for appeal. Much like the New Zealand model, blocking occurs through a public-private partnership of the government listing content it wishes blocked and ISPs instituting blocks to prevent their customers from consuming it.

Like New Zealand’s recent blocking efforts, China’s system officially exists for the same reason: to block access to disturbing content and content that would disrupt social order. In the Chinese case, however, the system has famously morphed to envelope all content that might threaten the government’s official narratives or call into question its actions.

In New Zealand’s case, website censorship was limited to a small set of sites allegedly hosting sensitive content relating to the attack. Yet, the government’s apparent comfort with instituting such a nation-wide ban so swiftly and without debate reminds us of how Chinese-style censorship begins.

Few would likely argue that the general public needs to be able to consume the graphic details of a terror attack. Yet, once governments normalize the infrastructure and practice of blocking access to content, there is little to stop them from declaring other kinds of violent content off-limits and then eventually move towards blocking any kind of societally troubling content.

One could easily imagine governments around the world using a similar argument to institute automatic bans on any video that depicts violence and using that process to block the posting of citizen video of police use of force. Suddenly all of those cellphone videos capturing security forces around the world using force to silence government critics would be banned under the auspices of preventing access to violent material.

Imagine if such tools had been in place half a century ago to allow the US Government to block all publication of images of the Kent State shooting. Written descriptions of that day’s events alone would likely not have been able to galvanize public opinion like the graphic imagery of its aftermath. Moreover, the government could easily have dismissed such written statements as hyperbole or “fake news.”

Similarly, written descriptions of prisoner abuse and torture by the US at Abu Ghraib could easily have been dismissed as overwrought falsehoods in a way that the stark graphic images that spread virally could not.

We understand atrocities through their historical records. One of the most common tools of Holocaust denial is to claim that all of the photographic evidence of the time was staged or fabricated. Imagine if, with the flip of a switch, a government could simply block all access to all information about the Holocaust out of concern that it would affect the public? In our increasingly digital world, if all traces of the Holocaust are deleted or blocked, suddenly it ceases to exist as a public topic of conversation and most importantly, warning. As we forget our history we are doomed to repeat it.

Today Tiananmen Square exists in our public memory because China is able to block access to all mention of those events only within its own borders, while the rest of the world is free to condemn it. What might happen if our globalized social media companies permitted governments like China to ban all mention of a violent event from their country from access anywhere in the world? Our planet’s worst atrocities could simply be swept away.

Indeed, the Burmese government would likely be first in line to exercise such powers to eliminate global discussion of the events within its borders.

Citizen video shot on cellphones has become a particularly powerful way of holding governments accountable. Yet, here again, if governments can flip a switch to block all access to content they deem sensitive, it would not be hard to foresee a rush by governments everywhere to block all footage of encounters with security services. Venezuela would suddenly be a rich utopia where there is no suffering or conflict, if it was able to block all access to imagery and video worldwide depicting otherwise.

Most importantly, as we’ve seen in a growing number of nations, such censorship efforts naturally progress towards any content viewed as troublesome by the government. In a world in which even democratically elected governments increasingly attack the press and look to restrict their ability to hold elected officials accountable, it is not hard to imagine governments exercising such powers to simply take any news outlet offline that dares to venture from the party line.

Indeed, Russia appears to be heading swiftly in that direction.

Historically only dictatorships closed news outlets for negative coverage, but in our digital world a government need not actually close a news outlet, they can simply flip a switch to block it from access, silencing it just as effectively and without drawing any attention to its actions.

The problem with censorship is that while there might be wide agreement that the general public need not have unrestricted access to a horrific terrorist video, such removal sets society upon a slippery slope towards governments exercising those powers to block content troublesome to itself, such as excessive use of force by police or even non-violent content like corruption allegations against senior government officials. It also raises important historical questions regarding how we’ve understood atrocities in the past versus how we will understand them in our digital future and what it means when governments have the ability to erase all traces of events.

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are critical questions for us as societies to have. How do we prevent the perpetrators of violence from achieving notoriety or inspiring others, while ensuring society learns and takes action to ensure such events do not take place again? At the same time, how do we ensure governments do not exercise their powers to censor their own accountability, such as blacklisting coverage of corruption allegations?

Putting this all together, our digital world has granted governments unprecedented control over the informational ecosystems of their citizenry. Rather than rendering governments obsolete and ensuring unfettered information access, the web has actually not only entrenched the power of governments over information but gone further to grant them powers of control unimaginable in the print era. Where this takes us remains to be seen but is something that must be decided by societies in the open rather than by governments in the dark.

(Forbes)

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