Internet freedom and censorship
I participated today in a panel discussion at Voice of Russia London, on freedom of Web speech – the future of the Internet, possible restraints, what is and isn’t currently allowed. My angle was that on the unintended effects of censorship, based on research I have done in the last few years.
You may remember our ICCU (Internet Censorship and Civil Unrest) study, which I started with Antonio A. Casilli during the summer 2011 English riots. We looked at the potential effects on civil violence of restrictions to access to the Internet –considered, though eventually not implemented, by the government. Leaving aside issues of technical feasibility and legal and ethical acceptability, would net censorship work? Would it stop the violence?
We show that it wouldn’t. Its effect would be to interrupt coordination of both unlawful agitation and community pacification efforts, if not even policing: so neither “positive” nor “negative” social influences, so to speak, would display their effects. Censorship doesn’t reduce the level of violence, but changes its pattern. Specifically, it generates a steadily high level of violence, while its absence produces only “picks” of violence, with periods of social peace between them.
We conclude that Internet censorship is ineffective and inefficient: its social cost (in terms of giving up freedom of speech) is too high for such meagre results.
In our other study ANAMIA, we investigate the websites, blogs and forums of persons with eating disorders. The most controversial among them, known as “pro-ana” or “pro-anorexia”, have gone as far as to claim that eating disorders are a choice or a lifestyle, rather than serious conditions. Since the early 2000s, fears that these websites may induce unhealthy behaviours (possibly in young and adolescent viewers), have prompted many web services to remove them, while some countries have considered outlawing them.
Yet eating-disorder related Web communities continue to proliferate. They have migrated to more hidden platforms, barred entry to outsiders, concealed their true nature, and relocated in foreign countries. Antonio A. Casilli labels this the “toothpaste effect“: squeezed from one service, controversial contents re-organise themselves elsewhere. Paradoxically, censorship multiplies these websites –if only because of the urge to duplicate contents for backup purposes, in case they have to shut down and move!
Today, these websites are less open and less visible, though still numerous and densely connected with one another. Thus, they can still influence their users and maybe drive them to risky behaviours, just as before; but it has become harder for health and nutrition campaigns to locate them and reach out to their users.
Again, censorship hasn’t achieved its aims: it has failed to stop “negative” influences, and has made it more difficult for “positive” influences to operate.
Update of 26th April 2012: the panel discussion can be listened to here.
Simultaneously, Jean-Loup Richet published an interesting post on: Internet Censorship in France: should we criminalize viewers?
After his interview for CBC Radio Canada, Antonio A. Casilli has posted on Would online censorship be effective? Evidence from two research projects proves the opposite
Filed under: Internet and social media, Sociology | Leave a Comment
Tags: 2011 UK riots, Civil violence, Internet policy, Pro-ana and pro-mia websites, social theory, Sociology, Web
I am an economic sociologist with interest in social networks and their impact on markets, organisations, consumer choice and health.
My research also includes work in social science methodology and data.
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