By: J.A. Young
In times like these, when citizens all over the globe are embattled in a constant struggle against the oppressive power of corporate interests and fettering government restriction, the Internet has become a tool of immense importance. In both practical and ideological applications, it is perhaps humanity’s greatest hope for a democratic system of free-expression, transaction, and distribution of information. Despite its faults the Web has doubtlessly changed the world for the better, and as a result it has recently come under intense fire from traditional political institutions and capitalist power structures. At its core the Internet is a finger in the eye of authoritarianism, but powerful measures are currently underway to change that.
The battle to control online information has manifested itself in many forms over the past several years, one of the most worrying ways occurred recently in the United Kingdom. David Cameron’s administration has publicly instituted a filter on Internet content that is intended to prevent the distribution of various types of pornography. The motivation behind this censorship has an important historical basis which we have to consider before looking into the actual intent of limiting internet availability. Over the past half century the British government has made a point of restricting different forms of extreme content in a variety of ways. This has of course perpetuated the stereotype of England as a country that is presided over by the nanny-state. Early obscenity laws were instituted during the early 1960s which banned the sale of hardcore pornography in Britain, one of few Western nations to do so. These restrictions were then reinforced with the passage of the Video Recordings Act of 1984, and have laid a unique precedent of censorship within the country.
Considering this history it is not entirely surprising that Parliament has recently made efforts to keep people from viewing extreme content on the Internet, but the implications of the newest legislation are terrifying. There is the obvious problem that the censorship is entirely ineffective against blocking the content that David Cameron intended to smother. The current filters prevent Internet users from visiting any number of non-pornographic sites that may be about rape, sexual abuse, or just have extensive amounts of orange on the page (the filter blocks content with extensive skin-tone). This level of embarrassing incompetency is only a small concern when viewed next to the intrusive precedent that this content filter is setting for the future of political oversight on the Internet. After being instituted solely to limit pornographic content, the British government is now charging forward to extend the reach of the program. It seems obvious in light of the new changes that Orwell’s 1984 has been taken as useful plan for government control instead of as a cautionary tale.
In response to the NSA revelations that have taken place in the United States we hear the argument that the problem of excessive government control exists independently of benevolent intentions. Even if Barack Obama and the demagogues that created the program did so with the hope of preventing terrorism and tragedy, they have created a “dictator’s toolkit” for the next administration that comes along. By compiling data on every person who uses a cell phone and computer, the NSA gains the ability to label anyone they choose as a radical, dissident, and a heretic. We are assured that this is not what is actually happening, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Recent reports indicate that NSA surveillance was used in order to target supporters of whistle-blowing organizations like Wikileaks. Even if this program was used solely for the preservation of national security, how will it be used by a future president? The answer is of course that we have no way of knowing.
This point also applies to the United Kingdom, which has recently extended the reach of the porn filter to various types of content that are both ambiguous and arbitrary. Internet filtering will now extend to pages that concern, according to the Huffington Post, “access to “violent material,” “extremist and terrorist related content,” “anorexia and eating disorder websites,” and “suicide related websites.”  Following the logic behind this extension of control, surely anyone who dissents against such censorship would become a victim of the program, along with anyone who promotes a “radical view” of politics—whatever that may be. Even when you consider Britain’s uniquely uptight history of censoring extreme content, this most recent step is clearly in the direction of authoritarianism. It represents not only the creation of the aforementioned “dictator’s toolkit,” but also the ideology supporting such dictators. This bilateral shift towards a surveillance state that is taking place on both sides of the Atlantic is the most pressing issue of domestic politics.
In the United States personal digital information is also under attack from the commercial side as well as the political. Internet and cable supplier Comcast has recently purchased competitor Time Warner Cable for the price of 45 billion dollars, and now we find America one-step closer to a monopoly that would pave the way for censorship. It is impossible to separate this new problem from the issue of capitalism as a whole. From the standpoint of economics, it makes perfect sense for Comcast to absorb its competitor and gain a larger share of the market, with uninhibited growth being the end product of all free-market enterprises. Of course for anyone who wishes to procure television and Internet access with impunity the merger is a serious problem, and will likely lead to even more usurious data bills and less privacy. With Comcast swallowing up the market, net neutrality becomes even more likely to disappear, and along with it many of the democratic features of the Internet that we all enjoy. The best part about the Internet is that it can offer the same information and capabilities to all people with access, but the strong corporate interests of the Man make that all go away. Once you have a single company controlling access to information, the Internet ceases to be free.
It seems that the great powers of the West which define themselves on emancipation from control and free-access to information are slowly but surely descending into the depths of techno-dictatorship. The British and American media make a clear distinction between their own governments and ruthless censorship that exists in places like China and Iran, but the gap separating the two is rapidly shrinking. It is our duty as free-citizens, voters, and taxpayers to stand up against this new push for digital tyranny.