Monday, 12 March 2012

The Future of Openness or the Age of Uncertainty?

Mikael Järvelin from the Finnish Institute in London blogs about censorship in modern society.

On the 29th of February 2012 London School of Economics organized a panel discussion on the topic ‘Censorship in an Age of Freedom’. Charlie Beckett, the director of Polis and the author of a book ‘Wikileaks: News in the Networked Era’, Heather Brooke, investigative journalist and the author of ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitized’ and Nick Cohen, journalist and author of ‘You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship In an Age of Freedom’ held a discussion on censorship in today’s society based on their newly published books. This blog post contemplates the ideas of that discussion. At the same time as people cheer for opening of government data, governments are taking drastic measures to conceal unwanted information offered by Wikileaks and the likeminded websites.

There are three things in the world that are being censored more than anything else: God, state and money. Everyone is familiar with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the consequences that writing a book about religion can cause. Religion remains one of the main targets of censorships in the world. In totalitarian states with strong dictatorship, the questioning of the political leaders and actions of the state are punishable by law. Possibly the most common type of censorship in today’s society lies however in the world of business. People in banking industry for example are unable to question or criticise their companies. This could lead to being fired and never being able to return to work in the field of banking. Many human rights violations are being silenced in the face of huge amounts of money as well. With the development of Internet and new information channels, censorship has found new manifestations.

The new technology enables more people to be involved in gathering and sharing of information. The future of journalism could very well be in Wikileaks type of organisations that are harder to censor than traditional newspapers or television programmes. Information is globally more accessible and more detailed. However, this quantity of information brings uncertainty along. Information that is being published on the web is less controlled, thus making the information less reliable. Who is to say whether all the measures have been taken to ensure that the information in blogs or wiki-pages is from a reliable source? Fact checking is possibly the most important feature of serious journalism. How can we be sure, that we receive true information in the age where basically anyone can be a journalist?

Censoring of web pages may be harder than censoring of newspapers, but we can’t blame governments for not trying. More and more blacklists are being introduced in the world and we are not talking about dictator-run totalitarian states, but our very familiar western democracies as well. Blacklists were first introduced by human rights organisations as a way to block illegal web sites such as those that display child pornography. The problem is that the blacklists are not in the hands of human rights organisations any more but in the hands of the police and governments. Even though some restrictions are probably necessary, who is to say if only the really harmful web pages are being filtered? Censorship can easily lead to a society, where all the information is controlled and the opposition of the state is silenced. The very enabling of censorship casts a threat for the freedom of speech.

Today, the Internet is not run by any state or global organisation such as the UN. The Internet is more and more ruled by various corporations. To fully utilise the Internet, we need to use services provided by multinational corporations. People leave their digital footprints by using social media and sharing information about themselves on-line. The large corporations like Google or Facebook have huge amount of information about people, and they can easily take advantage for that information. How can we be sure that search engines take us to the source of all the necessary information and not only to the pages that are considered appropriate?

Newspaper sales are decreasing and people are turning to the Internet to find news. Blogs are there to offer information of all sorts, but as already noted, the content may be unreliable. It is up to us all, as educated citizens to evaluate the information that we find and call for reliable and accurate news. We must share our knowledge with others without asking for something in return. We need to check the facts behind the things we write or say publicly. We now have all the tools for sharing huge amount of information globally, but we need to make sure that the future of information leads us to a new age of openness and not to the age of uncertainty.

Mikael Järvelin
The Finnish Institute In London


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