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Overt Censorship: A Fatal Mistake?

Censorship of information often has the opposite effect by drawing attention to the censored material.
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  2. References
  3. Author
  4. Footnotes
Twitter bird in shackles

Recently, Twitter has reignited debate over Internet censorship by making a German neo-Nazi account unavailable to users in Germany at the request of German authorities.2 This followed Twitter’s adoption of a "country withheld content" policy in January 2012, which allows Twitter to block content in certain countries upon government request.a Since adopting the policy, Twitter has reportedly received several government requests to make sites unavailable in accordance with this policy, but for undisclosed reasons, Twitter has failed to act on any of the requests.

In Germany, the use of Nazi symbols is strictly forbidden by law, as is membership in a neo-Nazi organization. The clear illegality of the material in Germany is perhaps what made Twitter’s decision in this case so easy to make. All of the material is still available outside of Germany, however, and users have claimed it is relatively easy to bypass the blockage (using proxy servers, VPNs, and other methods).

Meanwhile, China’s government has recently been criticized for its decision to block access to a New York Times article1 that investigated assets accumulated by its prime minister, Wen Jiabao. China’s censors were nothing if not thorough, even deleting all social media posts that made reference to the issue and a Sina Weibo (a microblogging platform similar to Twitter) account that promoted the Chinese language version of the New York Times‘ arts and culture section. Despite this attention to detail, however, many thousands of users in China continued to discuss the issue by making veiled references to it, and by using deliberate misspellings and other covert tactics.

Interestingly, Twitter’s blockage of the neo-Nazi Better Hannover (@ hannoverticker) stimulated interest in the group, causing its number of followers to grow rapidly by 200 in just one day. Whether those followers were neo-Nazi sympathizers or simply people who were interested in the case is unclear, but what is clear is that the censorship itself acted as global publicity. It is arguable that in both cases the furor caused by the censorship of information has only served to draw attention to it further, surely defeating its purpose.

In fact, ever since the samizdatb of the Soviet bloc, it has been clear that in many ways overt censorship has always served to stimulate interest in the forbidden material. In the case of samizdat, this forbidden material became strongly fetishized in such a way as to make its contents immediately appealing, and immediately accepted by many sections of the population as truth. As Ann Komaromi has said in her essay "The Material Existence of Soviet Samizdat," "[Samizdat was]… something on which to get high… … an intoxicating product. It was forbidden fruit."4 The process of overt censorship here only served to elevate the censored material to a sacred status. It is clear that it also serves to expose a government’s intentions, and in many cases to undermine the government’s credibility.

Why is it, then, that governments such as China’s still choose to pursue a policy of aggressive and overt Internet censorship? The issue was investigated by researchers at Harvard University.3 The conclusion they came to was that China’s policy on censorship is not what it seems. From the outside, it may seem China’s intention is to suppress all anti-government discussion and the expression of revolutionary ideas. In fact, what China found was that direct criticism of the government was no more likely to be censored than anything else. Censorship was instead targeted at postings that sought specifically to organize collective anti-government action or to create action groups of any kind.

Germany’s reasoning for the censorship of Better Hannover was similar. Germany’s aim was not the suppression of neo-Nazi ideas, but rather the prevention of any organized and collective anti-democratic action suggested by those ideas.

Censorship exposes a government’s intentions and in many cases undermines the government’s credibility.

It is easy to see why Germany would adopt such a policy. After the horrors that National Socialism inflicted on the German population, it was clear that measures had to be taken to stop such a situation from arising in the future. Unfortunately, however, these measures may only serve to stimulate interest in the subject, and to create a whole new kind of samizdat in the form of websites that must be accessed covertly. They may be successful in disabling action by these forces for a certain period of time, but it remains to be seen in both cases whether the publicity created by overt and aggressive censorship ultimately strengthens or weakens the government’s position.

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