The internet is a powerful tool. It allows people to share their thoughts in a faster and more far-reaching way than ever before, which sounds amazing if we lived in a utopian society where everybody got along. Unfortunately, reality has proven otherwise, and now that the internet has become such a large part of so many people’s lives, the question of where to draw the line between censorship and free speech must be considered because it has very practical consequences and implications. The two directly oppose each other, but the line gets blurred when words turn into actions.
Free speech is not completely unbounded/unqualified. The famous restriction on free speech that is used to demonstrate its limitations is that you can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. This rule was not made because it would be rude to do so or to teach Americans better movie etiquette and give other customers a better viewing experience but because it would (or could) cause unwarranted danger. Deciding what else falls under the category of dangerous things to say is difficult because it can be somewhat subjective, which makes it a gray area. In China, the government views the ideas of independence and democracy as dangerous even though these same ideas are held up as ideals in the United States.
Censorship places limitations on free speech, and like free speech, it has the ability to be dangerous when misused and abused. Controlling which ideas are and aren’t allowed to be shared gives a group of people power over others, which is why censorship has to be treated carefully. I think a good standard to start with is that speech that directly incites violence against others should be censored online. Things are less clear, however, when something violent occurs as the result of someone’s reaction to an online comment because you can’t always predict or control how others respond to something you say, and you certainly don’t control their behavior, so it’s harder to tell who is to blame when things like that happen.
In the following, it is important to note that telling companies what they can and cannot censor is itself a form of censorship. You have to consider where the company’s free speech rights begin and end. I agree with Robert Epstein when he writes that “If Google were just another mom-and-pop shop with a sign saying ‘we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,’ that would be one thing. But as the golden gateway to all knowledge, Google has rapidly become an essential in people’s lives – nearly as essential as air or water.” Due to their size and influence, it is more crucial that companies such as Google and Facebook censor where necessary and only where necessary – no more, no less.
I think the most obvious abuse of censorship is using it to suppress opposing views just because you disagree with them. Even this statement is not an absolute because the case could be made for when the opposing view is dangerous or harmful, but relativists will say that this is subjective, which complicates things. From my point of view, government dissent is not gravely dangerous in and of itself (as long as it does not directly call for violence against people or property), and it would be unethical to censor these opinions.
On the other hand, news and messages spread by terrorist groups should be censored because by definition, terrorist groups aim to cause terror. Then, the question becomes how to decide if a group is in fact a terrorist group or if it’s just a group with views that you disagree with. If they are hostile and promote violence justified by their ideology, that is a pretty good indicator that they are a terrorist group. If they just say things that make you uncomfortable, and many reasonable people aren’t concerned about it, then you should re-examine why it makes you so uncomfortable because it probably has more to do with how you perceive things than what was actually said. A similar approach could be taken when considering whether hateful and discriminatory comments should be censored. Whether something is offensive is only determined by the recipient not the writer, so while we have a decent idea of what might cause offense, we cannot control how others react to things, and we can’t guarantee that there is someone who will read what we write and be offended or not be offended by it. My initial thoughts would be to censor anything that calls for physical violence, but if we are to recognize mental health to be equally as legitimate as physical health, it follows that we should censor comments that cause mental and psychological damage. This is harder to detect, so it would be harder to enforce.
A lot of the debate surrounding online censorship seems kind of petty. I don’t think it’s ethical for large, public companies to remove information that is not in line with their interests and political beliefs. However, I do think that sometimes people and organizations try to push the envelope and provoke the large companies into removing their content so that they can make a big deal about it and gain public support for the “wrongdoing” that the large company committed. I think both sides need to lay off a bit.
If political censorship is going to happen, I think the same rules should apply to everyone regardless of where they fall on the spectrum. Some extremist groups promote violence, and I think those should be censored. Others who just promote peaceful discussion of ideas should not be censored for ideas that a company disagrees with. When it comes to discussion of illegal activities, I’m not sure what the right course of action is. My instinct would be to say that they should be censored because not doing so could be viewed as passive endorsement of them, and talking about illegal activities could make people more likely to engage in them, but a blanket ban on talk of illegal activities would also eliminate constructive conversations regarding the pros and cons of making an activity legal or illegal. I think something more nuanced needs to be applied to the censorship of illegal activities.
There is a lot of speculation about what will happen if we enact a law or reverse a ruling, but it’s just speculation. You don’t know for sure until you do it. Censorship is a powerful tool. I don’t know exactly what the answer is as to how to apply it, but I think it lies somewhere between the two extremes of no regulation and censoring everything. I don’t think that we’ll ever completely figure it out and get it perfect, but I think we should try our best to use censorship responsibly to work towards the common good.