Misunderstanding Censorship: It Is Not Just Words

June 3, 2021

Popular words now are take down (killing servers), block (filter users or items on a stop list), cancel (ignoring a person or terminating an API call), and a pride of synonyms like terminate with extreme prejudice. The idea is that censorship is go to method to cultivate a more pleasing digital garden. But who owns the garden? The answer is that “ownership” depends on one’s point of view.  Big tech has one role to play. Those contributing content in different media have another. The person who reads, listens, or watches “information” gets in the act as well.

The popular words reflect an interesting development. Those “in charge” want to preserve their kingpin role. Those who have an audience want to remain popular and get even more popular if possible. Those users want to consume what they want and will use available tools to satisfy their wants and needs.

In short, censorship seems to be a way for someone in a position to be a gatekeeper to impose a particular view upon information, how something “works” in the datasphere, or what “content” can flow into, through, and out of a 2021 system.

The first example of this imposition of a view point is articulated in “PayPal Shuts Down Long-Time Tor Supporter with No Recourse.” The main point is that an individual who contributed to the Tor project has been “booted” or “terminated with extreme prejudice” from the quasi-bank financial services operation PayPal. The article asserts:

For years, EFF has been documenting instances of financial censorship, in which payment intermediaries and financial institutions shutter accounts and refuse to process payments for people and organizations that haven’t been charged with any crime. Brandt shared months of PayPal transactions with the EFF legal team, and we reviewed his transactions in depth. We found no evidence of wrongdoing that would warrant shutting down his account, and we communicated our concerns to PayPal. Given that the overwhelming majority of transactions on Brandt’s account were payments for servers running Tor nodes, EFF is deeply concerned that Brandt’s account was targeted for shut down specifically as a result of his activities supporting Tor.

Does PayPal the company have strong feelings about software which obfuscates certain online activities? Tor emerged years ago from a government commercial research project. Now it is one of the vehicles allowing some users to engage in cyber crime-like activities. The write up does not dig too deeply into the who, what, when, why, how, and circumstances of “financial persecution.” That’s not surprising because PayPal is a commercial enterprise and can mostly do what it wants. The main point for me is that this type of blocking action has nothing to do with words.

I also want to mention that Amazon Twitch has been wrestling with take downs too. A popular “content creator” named Amouranth was blocked. Also, a 21st century talk show host known as BadBunny was banned. Amouranth’s Twitch stream featured a kiddie pool, an interesting fashion statement in the form of a bathing suit, and lots of eye shadow. BadBunny’s “issue” was related to words. I am not sure what BadBunny is talking about, but apparently the Twitch “proctors” do. So she had to occupy herself with other content creation for two weeks until she was reinstated. At the same time, a content creator named ibabyrainbow (whom I featured in my April National Cyber Crime Conference talk) provides links to Twitch followers who want more intriguing videos of ibabyrainbow’s antics. Thus, far ibabyrainbow has not run afoul of Amazon’s “curators” but Amazon may not know that ibabyrainbow provides other content on different services under the name of babyrainbow. Some of this content could be considered improper in certain countries.

Then I want to reference a remarkable essay about censorship called “How Censorship Became the New Crisis for Social Networks.” This write up states:

There are two strains of outrage related to censorship currently coursing through the platforms. The first are concerns related to governments enacting increasingly draconian measures to prevent their citizens from expressing dissent…. The second and perhaps more novel strain of outrage over censorship relates not to governments but to platforms themselves.

That’s tidy: A dichotomy, an either or, good evil, savage and civilized. Not exactly. I think the reality is messy and generating new complexities as each mouse click or finger swipe occurs.

People generally dislike change. If change is inevitable, some people prefer to experience the change at their own pace. Today the ease with which a threshold can be changed in an algorithm is disconcerting. What happened to my Google photos? Or Why can’t I access my iTunes account? are part of everyday life. Where’s BadBunny, Mr. Twitch?

My view is that censorship and its synonyms to polish up these actions designed to control information has been a standard operating procedure for many, many years. Book burning, anyone? The motivation is to ensure that power is retained, money flows, and particular views are promulgated.

The datasphere is magnifying the ease, effectiveness, and intention of managing words, images, and actions. I prefer to think of censorship as “proaction”; that is, taking the necessary steps to allow those with their hands on the knobs and wheels to further their own ends.

Instead of “terminated with extreme prejudice” implore “proactive measures.” Who is doing it? Maybe China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and a number of other nation states? What commercial enterprises are practicing proaction? Maybe the FAANGs, the Bezos property Washington Post, the hip digital thing known as the New York Times, and anyone who can direct digital streams to benefit themselves.

Censorship — what I call proaction — is the new normal.

Adapt and avoid dichotomies. That type of thinking is for third graders.

Stephen E Arnold, June 3, 2021


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