why bother with censorship?

June 17, 2009

Iranian Protesters

Iranian Protesters

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news over the last two days, you’ll undoubtedly have heard breathy congratulation for how the protesters in Iran have used new media like Twitter and Facebook to circumvent the Iranian government’s shutdown of SMS (text) messageing, BBC Persia, and (briefly before the election) Facebook.

You probably also have heard that China’s patchwork internet firewall and monitoring system is fairly easy to circumvent via a simple proxy-server. Here’s a post on how to do just that.

On a more personal note, the high school where I recently finished teaching had web filtering software to block pornography sites, Facebook, and other “non academic” sites. Having proctored the computer lab many, many times, I can tell you that the students have easily figured out how to get around all of these restrictions.

Clearly, the efforts of Iran and China (and possibly others I don’t know about) to “protect” its citizens from some areas or avenues of information don’t work terribly well. Thanks mostly to the internet, stopping communication when it really wants to happen is like the levees during Katrina trying to hold back Late Pontchartrain.

Sure, these “protective” measures do work to some extent. Some say that today’s (Tuesday) information coming out of Iran is far less than that of yesterday due to an increase in Iran’s restrictive measures. Undoubtedly, China’s firewall does hinder some people’s access to information.

Nevertheless, if you’re a government launching a censorship campaign, you better be damn sure it’s pretty airtight, since the stigma of censorship in the eyes of Western countries is pretty high, and it foments frustration in its own (younger, more tech-savy) population. Short of banning the internet outright, I can’t really see how a government could effectively stifle subversive organization and/or access to information.

If I were a repressive state, I’d give up on censorship and go instead for (non-state run) propaganda and controlling the apparatus of education. Iran and China (and others) also employ this form of opinion molding and would do well to concentrate their efforts in this area, which is a bit harder for an outside to show is rigged.

As the internet becomes even more the dominant form of communication, our global interconnectedness will only increase in the future. At some point, these governments must realize that restricting this access to information only undermines their credibility and viability both within and without their borders. It will be interesting to see how long it takes them to figure this fact out.


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