Self-censorship on the Internet

  • In the U.S. we pride ourselves on freedom of speech and freedom of the press and decry the countries around the world that indulge in government censorship, but at the same time we indulge in our own forms of censorship, much of it self-imposed.

    Our history is filled with all sorts of examples of censorship, both state-sponsored and self-imposed. Numerous books and movies have been censored by local schools, libraries and townships. The movie industry has its own self-imposed MPAA rating system. For almost 60 years the comic book industry adhered to the CCA (Comics Code Authority), a set of self-imposed rules regarding violence, sex and the portrayal of police and government officials.

    And, of course, we have the broadcast television Standards and Practices monitoring television content and the FCC has the power to fine or even shut down television and radio stations if they are informed of particularly egregious transgressions (although they primarily rely on ‘watch dog’ organizations to do the actual monitoring and I don’t believe they have ever pulled a station’s license permanently).

    But there are no specific rules, regulations or laws in place regarding Internet censorship (apart from child pornography, copyrighted content and certain other areas covered by laws that were created before the Internet even existed).

    Yet we see online self-censorship all the time.

    When the Islamic ISIL terrorists beheaded two American journalists and one British aid worker (among others) and posted videos of the acts on the Internet they provoked international outrage, but the videos were not carried by most news sites and they were pulled from many other sites as well.

    Many have said this was a good thing because posting the videos would only serve to advance ISIL’s agenda.

    On a less political but equally sensational note, when naked pictures of celebrities stolen from Apple’s iCloud (or wherever) were published online it caused a big uproar. But within a few days, sites were removing links to any sites that posted copies of the photos. One could say it was to protect the celebrity’s rights to privacy and that the photos were stolen not simply leaked by accident (or by a PR agent).

    And then we get into the grey area censorship issues such as the EU’s ruling that Google and other search engine companies must remove links to stories about people in certain situations. While not self-imposed, many people feel the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling is tantamount to indirect censorship. But Google routinely censors links to sites that it doesn't find appropriate for many reasons beyond copyright issues.

    Most recently Facebook has come under fire for deciding to force people to use their real names rather than stage names or pseudonyms. This too could be interpreted as censorship.

    Then we come to George Carlin’s infamous 1972 stand-up comedy monolog where he lists the ‘seven dirty words’ that you couldn’t say on television. The list has shrunk to four (shit, piss and tits are routinely heard on television shows these days but fuck, cunt, cocksucker and motherfucker are still verboten).

    But for whatever reasons, the majority of websites have adopted Carlin’s list and rarely use any of his seven dirty words online – or if they do they are partially redacted using asterisks, as in F*ck.

    Now simply because I have listed all seven dirty words above (without asterisks) there is no one, no government agency, no courts are going to come and shut down TGDaily for obscenity (although my boss might raise an eyebrow).

    And we could easily put pictures of naked people at the top of each of our articles (not that it would make much sense to our readers) and again, we wouldn’t get into trouble unless the people in the photos sued us.

    But even I tend to shy away from using obscene language in these posts and I don’t usually use nudity to promote stories (although I did use a partially nude self-portrait from photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at the top of my story about taking naked selfies).

    Some of it has to do with a statement my father once made about using obscenity. He said, obscenity can be very powerful. It gets people’s attention very quickly. But if you sprinkle obscene words throughout your speech it tends to water down the impact of those words.

    Another reason I don’t use very much obscenity in my writing or my everyday conversations is that I rarely need to use it when talking about Google’s antics or Apple’s newest iPhones.

    Another reason is that I worry I might offend someone who comes to this site looking for technology news and insights. It’s simply not necessary or appropriate in this setting.

    But there is also, somewhere in the back of my mind, the worry that, yes, someone just might show up and haul my ass to jail.

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