The internet has revolutionised the way ideas – both good and bad - are conceived, adopted and accelerated. But what does the new age of online censorship mean for our ability to speak freely and share ideas?
Today, NSA leaks share the front pages with celebrity hacking scandals, with more and more people get breaking news from unedited social media than ever before. That’s why we’re talking to Jillian C. York, a writer and activist focused on the intersection of technology and policy, about digital free speech.
York serves as the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where she works on a number of projects, including Surveillance Self-Defense, Digital Citizen, and OnlineCensorship.org.
Julia Hudson: Different countries regulate freedom of expression differently, for example limiting hate speech or blocking certain websites. How do you think digital conversations should interact with the law, given that the web crosses international boundaries?
Jillian C. York: Right now, the majority of major social media companies are headquartered in the US, and are therefore bound to US law. They often have offices in other jurisdictions as well, and are bound to local laws in those cases. But many of these companies are overcomplying, by removing content or sharing user data with governments when they’re not required to. I believe that companies should only comply when legally required and be transparent about the requests they receive and comply with. Google, reddit, and Twitter are all doing a good job on transparency right now.
What do you think are the biggest potential problems caused by digital censorship?
Traditional censorship often backfired easily when conducted after publication (amplifying whatever was censored through outrage) and early Internet censorship was easily circumvented through the use of proxy tools.
However the way that a lot of censorship is conducted nowadays means that content simply disappears. Companies comply with censorship orders, thus erasing content entirely.
Major companies like WhatsApp are now using end-to-end encryption, and it seems more people are looking for ways to protect their digital data. Do you see a tension between personal privacy and collective security?
Yes, I do. I think that using privacy-enhancing tools empowers us, allowing us to take personal responsibility for our safety, but at the same time, it’s a false security; if we view surveillance and security issues in a vacuum, separated from politics, and only fight it through the use of technology, we are merely treating the symptom, not the cause.
I think that the internet has the power to amplify activism, be it environmental activism or free speech activism.
You wrote last year about how the Internet can increase access to books and other materials that may be banned or unavailable in regular life. How do you think real-life debates about freedom of speech are impacted by activity online?
I think that the internet has the power to amplify activism, be it environmental activism or free speech activism. The debates that we’re able to have on social media run parallel to those being had by politicians - frankly, sometimes the dissonance between what politicians believe vs. what the people seem to believe amazes me - sometimes intersecting. We can’t rely entirely on online debate and advocacy, but it can be a powerful tool.
What do you think are the biggest changes to digital free expression we’re likely to see in the next year or two?
I think that corporate censorship, be it complicity with government censorship or through rules imposed by private companies, is an under-discussed but important topic that will only become greater as we grapple with how to handle things like terrorism and harassment online. I also think that a number of authoritarian governments are moving from a censorship model to one of surveillance, the idea being that, rather than block access to content, law enforcement can profile people based on what they read and write online. This is a very dangerous development.
The one thing that gives me hope though is the growing movement for digital rights happening around the world.