The progression is clear. At first, the internet was an uncensored free-for-all where anyone could publish anything and the search engines did their best to index it all.
Eventually, national governments began requiring search engines to censor according to national law. So Google and others introduced country-specific versions where local censorship was contained in-country.
And then the worst fears of free speech advocates were realized. Governments began insisting that global internet resources censor content based on local, national norms, laws and court rulings.
The world before global censorship
The truth is that Google has long been censored globally based on the laws of one nation. That nation was the United States. For example, Google has been actively and globally censoring in accordance with the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act for years.
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There is no U.S.-specific version of Google. There’s regular Google, which is subject to censorship according to U.S. law, and now there are nation-specific versions subject to the local laws of those countries. Still, U.S.-driven censorship has been minimal because of the First Amendment and a cultural norm of generally tolerating free-speech in the U.S.
But now that foreign governments have started to assert their rights to censor Google globally, we’re entering new territory.
The first case of global censorship came from Canada. Canada’s Supreme Court of B.C. in 2017 upheld a B.C. court ruling ordering Google to remove from its search results the website of a company found guilty of re-labelling the networking technology of a Canadian company and selling the equipment as its own.
In practice, the case is reasonable. The offending website linked to a fraudulent company. The legitimate company’s products were sold globally. So a global ban on the search result made sense.
In principle, however, a national government is forcing the censorship of search results globally base on its own laws. What happens when all governments assert the same right?
The EU rules locally, censors globally
Last month, the European Court of Justice rejected France’s attempt to impose the European Union’s right-to-be-forgotten rules globally. (The right to be forgotten is a legal requirement for search engines to remove search results linking to stigmatizing content about EU citizens no longer current when petitioned to do so by the stigmatized.) But that’s not the end of the story. The court explicitly left open the possibility that the EU could require global right-to-be-forgotten censorship in the future.
The most crushing European blow to free speech came in the form of a ruling against Facebook. Recently, the European court of Justice ruled that Austria can require Facebook to remove a 2016 Facebook post globally that criticized an Austrian politician. The post called her a “lousy traitor,” “corrupt oaf,” and member of a “fascist party,” and this kind of criticism of a politician is counter to Austrian norms.
The precedent means that any leader — any dictator or corrupt oaf — can assert the right to force social networks worldwide to remove criticism.
China’s soft-power censorship
The Chinese government is the most skillful censor in the world, able to censor social posts in real-time, use stigmatization and inconvenience embedded in its “Social Credit System” to temper speech and also keep the world’s internet at bay with its famous “Great Firewall.” This is all reserved for Chinese citizens inside China.
China has its own multifaceted approach to censoring outside of China. One of them is similar to how Canada, Europe and others have done it, which is to threaten restricted access to the enormous Chinese market if content isn’t censored as required.
The difference is that China can’t effect this threat through search engines and social networks, because they’re nearly all banned and blocked through the “Great Firewall of China.”
So they censor in other ways using a kind of soft power.
One example in the news involves Tom Cruise. A remake of the 1986 action movie “Top Gun” called “Top Gun: Maverick” has Cruise wearing the same leather jacket as in the original, but with two patches replaced. In the original, the jacket showed flags for Taiwan and Japan. These are now gone. China’s Tencent is an investor in the movie. And like many Hollywood films, the filmmakers are counting on a big Chinese distribution. (The Chinese government’s role in this censorship is speculative.)
A few years ago, China’s Xiaomi and Huawei smartphones selling globally included user agreements requiring users of associated cloud services to not “harm” China’s “national honor,” promote “cults and superstitions,” spread rumors, undermine Chinese “national unity” or disturb “social order” and “social stability.” These EULAs were roundly mocked by global users.
Even stranger, according to Reuters, the Chinese government now controls at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries — mostly in the United States, Australia and Europe — and censors the news on those stations based on Chinese government criteria. One station is in Washington, D.C.
China in fact censors globally in many ways, and seems to be ramping up its efforts. One fear is that instead of censoring foreign social networks, it may seek to replace them with a censored Chinese one.
Is time running out on TikTok?
Just this week, in a bipartisan initiative, Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton called on the acting director of national intelligence to investigate TikTok as a national security risk. Among their concerns is that the Chinese government may exert censorship control over the popular Chinese-owned social video app, banning such topics as Hong Kong protests, Taiwan independence (and in fact all independence movements) and matters related to Tibet or the Falon Gong.
The U.S. Senators also expressed concern that TikTok could provide personal details of U.S. users to the Chinese government, and also serve as a conduit for foreign influence campaigns to affect U.S. elections.
TikTok denies the charges.
In late September, the Guardian newspaper revealed censorship guidelines that ByteDance requires of moderators. The revelations were based on leaked documents.
TikTok moderators were instructed to delete videos globally that mention any of the hot-button topics banned by the Chinese government, including Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Taiwan, the Falun Gong — or any criticism of the Chinese government.
TikTok maintains a list of 20 foreign leaders who may not be mentioned or referred to at all, including the leaders of North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
It’s OK to mention Chinese president Xi Jinping, as long as he isn’t criticized. Stated another way: It’s OK for American TikTok users to praise the Chinese president on TikTok but Americans are not allowed to praise the current or former American president, according to the guidelines.
TikTok rejects the criticism and claims that the leaked guidelines are outdated, and that the company now localizes censorship.
ByteDance acquired TikTok through a $1 billion merger with an American company called Musical.ly. The company reportedly has spent another $1 billion on Facebook advertising.
When local censorship is globalized
The rise of global internet censorship will continue and spread.
Based on the Canadian precedent, local companies will use local courts to force competitors deemed illegitimate off Google worldwide.
Based on the European precedent, government leaders, including dictators, despots and authoritarians, will force criticism of themselves off the social networks.
And based on the Chinese precedent, governments will try to spread social services worldwide that censor according to local norms, laws and objectives.
National governments will love the ability to censor globally, but hate the ability of other nations to do the same. Battles will rage over what you can say about politics, religion and society and companies like Google and Facebook will find themselves in the crossfire. The most religious countries will impose their own religious rules on the world. Dictators and despots will assert the same powers of global censorship that the liberal democracies claim — and the liberal democracies won’t like it.
The result will be the decline of accuracy in search results and a decline in the quality of social conversation. In general, the internet will become less useful or reliable. Serious, important and interesting content will be removed and replaced by frivolous and prurient. In other words, the future of the internet looks a lot like TikTok.
Global internet censorship will also place new burdens on enterprises, which will need to monitor censorship threats to their businesses across the globe and act preemptively and creatively to fight them. Forecasters, investors and others will need to find alternative sources of information about the world in order to get an uncensored picture of what’s going on.
The internet has entered a new phase, where the dark side of information globalization becomes more apparent in our everyday activity and a major consideration about everything we and our organizations do online.
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