• The balance between censorship and privacy

    by  • February 8, 2012 • eGovernment

    Black and white. On and off. There are not many things in our experience that are truly dichotomous. Republican and Democrat? An endless set of variations. North and South? Truly depends upon where you sit. Freedom and Oppression? Shades of grey to the end of the human experience. Hot and Cold? Then what is warm? Twitter or Facebook? How do you want to be social. Mac or PC? Didn’t the Intel chip end this debate?

    But how about when the issue is truly a continuum that encompasses an almost unlimited set of variations? And what happens when those two ideas are in contrast to each other, yet there are demands for variations of both? How about Censorship (the suppression of speech by the government, media, or other body) and Privacy (the ability of people to seclude or exclude information about themselves)? How do we in a digital world handle the continuum of increasing ability to restrict the flow of information to us while the ability to protect the flow of information about is eroded?

    Last week when Twitter announced a new policy that under the appropriate legal demands from a government agency (there is a whole set of contradictions and murky terms in that statement alone) that it would block certain tweets from specific IP addresses within that country. To offset this Twitter has offered that they will post information in twitter and on Chilling Effects to let the rest of the world know that this information was blocked for this country. Essentially, this amounts to targeted censorship – not allowing the people within a certain country to see tweets and corresponding information because of the demands of their government.

    Twitter is not the only technology company that has contributed to censorship. In 2006 Google made a similar concession in China when it made a deal with the Chinese government that in order to install Google equipment on Chinese soil Google would block Web sites determined by the Chinese government to be illegal. This was later changed when Google redirected their Chinese traffic to Hong Kong, but it is still questionable whether or not Chinese users are getting unfiltered results. Yahoo!, another search engine giant, has also been accused of assisting the Chinese government by censoring search results. Admittedly, there are multiple ways to censor online content including IP blocking, proxy-based censorship, DNS tampering and filtering, and others. ¬†And let’s be clear – what Google, Cisco, Yahoo!, Twitter and other technology companies have done is completely legal.

    But efforts at censorship are not limited to China, the Middle East, or similar countries. Here in the United States, the attempt at the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) revealed new potential efforts at digital censorship in the name of fighting digital piracy. SOPA was well supported by media companies and opposed by technology, often the same technology companies that supported censorship in one way or another in other countries. Thankfully, SOPA in its current form was stopped.

    All of this got me thinking about the relationship between censorship and privacy. If you are able and willing to restrict the information flow one way, your can restrict it the other way. It would then make sense that the ability withhold information from us would be balanced with the ability to withhold information about us, or that an industry either directly or tacitly supporting censorship would also support increased levels of privacy. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    A great example is Google’s new 360-degree privacy policy which through a consolidation of data across almost all of their different product lines will create a unified customer profile. Since Google is now more of a media company then a search company, that make sense – more customer information means better targeted ads which means more revenue. Yet the same company that is willing to gather more information about its customers is also willing to block content from certain other customers.

    It is all about information, data, knowledge, and who has it and who doesn’t which in the end means bottom line revenue. Though most technology companies would like to deny that there is any sort of connection between privacy and censorship, there definitely is. Privacy is all about our willingness to restrict the information gathered about us, where censorship is about which information governments and companies allow to reach us, and should we be willing to be subject to censorship while our privacy is eroded?