The censor and the eavesdropper: the link between censorship and surveillance

Cory Doctorow makes a simple but important point in the Guardian: censorship today is inseparable from surveillance. In modern media preventing people from seeing proscribed information requires systems that monitor their activity. To implement copyright-protecting censorship in the UK systems must be in place to track where people seek to access and compare it to a denial list, in whatever medium is used.

Ironically censorship also makes the surveillance visible, so it might at least remind people about their lack of privacy – Doctorow discusses the fact that we might be undervaluing our privacy because privacy-related actions and consequences are widely separated in time and space. It might be safer to be reminded daily that authorities are against certain material than to have apparent transparency and quiet background logging. Whether that would be enough to shorten the action-consequence link to make people react is another matter.

It is interesting to turn Doctorow’s claim around: does surveillance lead to censorship? Awareness of surveillance certainly does lead to self-censorship. People in police states learn not to speak of certain things. There are chilling effects on free expression from fears of reprisals, libel, laws against hate speech or glorifying terrorism  or just being excluded from an online forum like Facebook by its owner or moderators. As George Orwell wrote, “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.” This self-censorship is based on an understanding about what shouldn’t be said – often based on little more than assumptions. I have friends who seem to think that any critical statement about Islam will risk a visit from a violent fundamentalist.

Self-censorship is pernicious because it both limits free expression, turns us into our own jailers, and cannot be regulated away. In an open society the citizens can change the laws affecting censorship, but changing social mores and assumptions requires speaking about them – and if that cannot be done, then there is no way of fixing them.

Hidden surveillance is another matter. It is weaker as a tool for social conformity since it does not have the panopticon effect. It is more likely to find our slips and hidden sides – especially now in the age of big data where it would be possible to mine the yottabytes of search information to profile us – but as long as we are not persons of interest this might matter little. I am not worried that the systems of Google or Akamai know my sexual kinks: I would be embarrassed if a person I know knew. The real threat here is the ease the aggregated information might suggest the need for regulation. Police forces and moral guardians like to quote statistics on the number of pages or searches for various terms as an argument for action against this “rising problem” and, of course, “to protect the children”. When you can look for something more easily, you will also see many more examples of it.

There is indeed a close link between censorship and surveillance, or for that matter openness and privacy. It all boils down to control over information: can a central power – or individuals – see and regulate where it goes? What is good for the goose is good for the gander. The problem is that centralized power can institute society-wide effects. And that suggests that in this world of potential ubiquitous surveillance, automated censorship, new forms of privacy and big data, maintaining control over the openness and accountability of our governments becomes far more important than ever before in history. If we allow that openness to slip, we might find ourselves chained by the infrastructure our lives depend on – and nobody to express our plight to, except the government eavesdropping system.


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