Cyberspace: The Next Frontier

Devon Yanvary
December, 2016

  As discussed earlier in this website, although literary fields are the most common targets of censorship, it is an issue that affects many other fields as well. In addition to other traditional mediums like textbooks, in the ever-growing digital age, cyberspace is now the primary forerunner for censorship attempts.

     Much like books, the struggle to control the internet has existed since its creation. First created in 1958, the internet, in its most primal state, was “a collection of interconnected computer networks linked by copper wires [and] fiber-optic cables” (National Coalition Against Censorship, n.d.). The internet used to be a room full of enormous, floor-to-ceiling computer machines that communicated with each other via physical connections—very different from what we as a society use today. It was created by the U.S. Department of Defense as a safety precaution in the event of a nuclear war; the internet was originally intended to keep lines of communication open to government officials during a crisis (NCAC, n.d.). It wasn’t until 1993 that the internet, as we know it, first became available to the general public. The internet was created by the government to protect the public, but now the internet needs the public’s protection from the government.

    By 1996, three major acts are passed regarding internet usage: (1) the Communications Decency Act, which prohibited “posting ‘indecent’ or ‘patently offensive’ materials in a public forum on the internet” (NCAC, n.d.); (2) the Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act, which required internet service providers to keep and produce the usage records of their customers in case of governmental involvement; and (3) the Child Pornography Prevention Act which simply extended existing laws regarding child pornography to include digital media (NCAC, n.d.). Since 1996, (as discussed in the previous section) there have been dozens of instances in which regulatory efforts have arisen and the legality of such efforts have been debated.

    Recall, just four years ago (2012), the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) were created in an attempt to monitor and restrict internet usage. These acts were created with the intent of preventing foreign websites that were providing illegal (infringed) content (Electronic Frontier Foundation,, n.d.); however, with the way the bill was written, many websites that were compliant with infringement laws could also be subject to removal. The main concern, regarding SOPA specifically, was that websites built around user-generated content would cease to exist. This includes very popular websites such as Deviant Art, Etsy and SoundCloud (EFF, n.d). Even online powerhouses like YouTube may have been destroyed (permanently shut down) had these bills been passed earlier in our digital history (EFF, n.d.). SOPA and PIPA made it so anyone could blacklist a website, even if there was no copyright violation found by a court of law (EFF, n.d.). Furthermore, search engines would have been required to delete domain names (NCAC, n.d.).

     There was a national outcry from internet users because the bills would affect so many more websites than originally intended. These bills were seen as an attack on free speech by internet users everywhere, as even “political and other speech from the Web” (EFF, n.d.) were in danger of being blacklisted. Essentially, if it was on the web, it wasn’t safe. The bills were stopped by a campaign started by the EFF that entailed mass petition signing and protests, which became known as the Internet Blackout (EFF, n,d).

    In addition to censorship already dominating literary fields (discussed throughout) and surfacing in educational/collegiate fields (discussed by Heidt, Lukianoff and Hellerstein), the effects of censorship also are also overflowing into newer, uncharted territory. Digital literature (ebooks), as well as where they’re found, are slowly becoming a new point of interest to censors.

 

    Robert Doyle of the Illinois Library Association (ILA) comprised a list of challenged and banned books in 2014 and 2015; of these books was It’s Perfectly Normal. The book, written by Robbie harris in 1994, has since become a multi-book series that uses hand drawn illustrations of anatomy, masturbation and even sexual acts for educational purposes. In addition to the physical book  finding itself in legal trouble (Rossuck, 1997), the ebook has since followed suit. Parents and teachers were appalled by this book, claiming it had no right being in schools for any age group, and that any explanations of sex should be conducted in the home.

    The challenging of an ebook shows a clear movement from traditional mediums to more modern avenues and it’s a trend that seems to be growing: Amazon has a history of removing ebooks from the Kindle store as well as from the personal e-libraries of Kindle customers. Books subjected to removal range from user generated content to literary classics. This is especially ironic, as Amazon’s original focus was books-- its tagline was “Earth’s biggest bookstore” (Turner, 2011).

 

    While Amazon allows users to submit their own work, and claims to never censor user generated offerings (Hawley, 2010), the company has a history of doing just that. In line with the kind of censorship discussed throughout this website, Amazon (or, the “thought police,” according to Ken Fisher [2009]) engaged in traditional censorship by eliminating all user access to self-published ebooks of a mature and questionable nature without warning, save for an email sent out post-removal. The challenge with these cases is the material; of the ebooks removed, genres included incest erotica and pedophilia. While to most, these topics are extremely disagreeable, their removal does pose an interesting  (or perhaps conflicting) moral and political question: with classic novels like Flowers in the Attic and Lolita readily available for purchase, should user-generated ebooks be pulled for content of a similar nature? And moreover, don’t these instances mirror those of prior cases discussed throughout this paper, in that an individual’s preference should not interfere with the access of the majority? Issues regarding content like this also triggers self-reflection in individuals: should personal objection override political rights, especially when individuals are not being forced to interact with the material itself? To remove these books that mirror bestselling novels seems hypocritical.

    While Amazon removed the books in response to user criticism, journalist Kristen Hawley questions whether Amazon should be expected to “police every single title available on its site” (2010).According to Hawley, to allow open submissions and then to remove some because a portion of customers find it offensive is suspiciously anti-free speech. Hawley also insinuates that if Amazon assumes responsibility for every user generated title posted, the submission guidelines may become too strict (2010). Stricter submission guidelines imply an imposed limitation to forms of expression, which could be considered an infringement on free speech. Additionally, journalist Leta Shy points out that these books are sought out by customers to some degree, so there must be at least a minimal audience for authors to cater to (2010). The only clear conclusion that can be drawn from this is a perfect example in which censorship is seen creeping into digital user generated creation, much like the way SOPA and PIPA would have.

 

    Classic novels like 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell have also been subjected to removal by the online powerhouse (Stone, 2009). In this instance, however, it was not an issue of content, but copyright. In 2009 Amazon deleted “unauthorized copies” (Cheng, 2010) of the novels; the books were uploaded “by a company that did not have the right to them” (Stone, 2009), and the distribution of rightful profits was comprised. Again, Amazon removed the novels in the same way the self-published pieces were. This resulted in a lawsuit that Amazon settled with the promise that future book removal would only occur under very specific circumstances such as payment or malware issues (Cheng, 2010). (Meanwhile, simply ‘settling’ a case to resolve it is a practice in American politics that is growing more and more popular.) And though no other cases have caught national attention, The New York Times reports that unauthorized ebooks have found their way into the Kindle store multiple times before(Stone, 2009) and it is a common practice for Amazon to silently remove them, much to the irritation of Kindle users everywhere. Of the more notable titles removed over the years was one of the Harry Potter books (Mysterious George Orwell refunds, 2009). What does Amazon’s business practices say about corporate involvement and influence on censorship?

 

    Amazon’s ability to remotely remove books without permission from the elibraries of Kindle users reveals a new problem unfolding in the issue of censorship. The issue, while complex in legalities, was fairly one dimensional until this point. Now it taken on a dualistic nature. On one hand, Amazon is guilty of removing ebooks for ideological reasons, which (despite taking on a new medium) mimics the kind of censorship discussed throughout this website; on another hand, however, Amazon is now instituting a brand new form of censorship: commercial censorship. Instead of censoring with the intent to preserve moral integrity, Amazon is censoring in order to protect somebody’s profits. If Amazon, one of the most notable and successful online giants, can decide via executive order, who can access what and when, what kind of effects will this have on other businesses (digital, user-based, or otherwise)? Much like Amazon’s legal case for the removal of 1984, it seems as though a financial settlement (or payoff) can solve any legal discrepancy. Censorship rooted in monetary interest influencing what people have access to is not only a sad reflection of current democratic policies, but a frightening new development in censorship practices. Does Amazon’s motive justify the means used to achieve the goal? Or has a new precedent unknowingly been set? Commercial censorship is the new evolution of what society has already dealing with for centuries.With a new environment to cultivate expression (the internet), and with politicians out there hoping to regulate it, there is no telling what may happen or how censorship may further change. Though SOPA and PIPA did not pass, the intent still lingers.

 

    The NCAC estimates that 80% of Americans use the internet and 4.5 billion websites exist  (n.d.). This creates a vast digital landscape in which both creative and serious expression can occur. The internet is accessible to anyone, anywhere at anytime, making it a virtual breeding ground for information, and participatory culture is at an all time high. Henry Jenkins defines participatory culture as a community “in which members believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another” (2015). However, it is a term that is flexible in meaning; Mizuko Ito furthers this explanation to include passive activity, stating that participatory culture also occurs in instances where community members are “part of the shared practice and culture” (2015).

 

    Essentially, a participatory culture can exist both when there are users who generate content as well as users who act as an audience for the content. It is not required that every user needs to create content to contribute. Furthermore, danah boyd states that “youth engage for personal, educational, political and social reasons” (2015). Essentially, a participatory culture can exist anywhere a group of people feel connected in some way. Generally this connection stems from experiences or beliefs, thus promoting a safer and more open environment for content generation. Many times, digital communities come together through and for political means. Participatory culture tends to reflect and mirror political processes; to deny the American public the ability and space to contribute freely and communally in digital communities is an affront to American ideals.

 

    With this in mind, it is easy to see how information can grow at such a rapid rate digitally. It is also the exact reason why internet censorship is a serious concern. With so many contributors present on the internet, it is difficult to contain, and aside from already existing copyright laws, the internet is still moderately unregulated (NCAC, n.d.); thus the internet has become “a free speech battle ground and target of censors” (NCAC, n.d.). This is a very dangerous time in our digital history: “the internet has had immeasurable cultural, economic and political impacts on society...suppression of viewpoints and distortion of information harm open discourse” (NCAC, n.d.).

 

    For many, the internet is the primary source of information, so there is much give and take within digital communities. It is also an outlet for millions of users (creatively or otherwise). Having the freedom to express oneself in ways that are meaningful to the individual is extremely important for mental and emotional wellbeing. If the internet becomes too censored, not only will people be losing a main channel of self expression, but society as a whole will be losing all the meaningful and influential contributions that have come from digital mediums. Many write the internet off as a source of memes and click bait, but this is just a small segment of the impacts of the internet. Just a few concepts popularized by the internet and open discourse include: cultural appropriation, feminism and #BlackLivesMatter, all of which are legitimate social movements that have existed for years within politically charged communities. However, before the widespread reach of the internet, some of these concepts were limited in impact. Given the level of influence participatory culture has on today’s society, censorship of open communication would only harm society’s ability to grow.

       

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