.cat: Law enforcement, censorship – or mobilization incentive?

What happens when political measures are taken on the internet? Does it limit the public sphere, or is cyberspace too anarchistic to affect?


Barcelona September 21. (Photo: Getty Images)

The tension is reaching the boiling point in Spain, leading to drastic measures from the central government. The autonomous region of Catalonia has a history of conflict with the central government in Madrid based on political, cultural and lingual oppression, dating back to the Spanish Succession Wars which ended with the establishment of today’s Spain in 1714 .


Since 2006 a referendum for Catalan independence has been a hot topic in the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The debate took a major leap in 2013, where a 200 kilometer human chain of independence supporters took the streets on the Catalan National Day, and in a tentative referendum in November 2014. Where the Catalan government has asked for a referendum om the region’s autonomy, the central Spanish government has been unwilling to negotiate. In spite of going against article 2 of the constitution which declares the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”, the Catalan government has announced that they will hold the referendum the 1st of October.


To prevent the referendum to be realized, the Spanish government has taken drastic measures towards Catalonia, last week seizing the official domains for the referendum, stirring reactions from international actors.

Screen shot of www.referendum.cat 24.09.2017.


The democratic dilemma in this is deep. The Catalan referendum is unconstitutional, but is the constitution more important than civil rights?


More than just a domain

In general, internet censorship is related to regimes associated with less freedom and civil rights, such as China, which has now extended its censorship to also include WhatsApp. The blocking of Catalan websites and IT systems is a necessary tool for the Spanish government in avoiding the Catalan referendum. But because the tools for holding the referendum are based on the internet, the preventive measures reach into the public sphere. Thus, the dilemma extends from a practical, democratic one to also encompass freedom of speech and freedom of information.


The central government, with the intention to block the practical possibilities of the referendum, is committing democratic atrocities by entering the space of free and accessible deliberation and dialogue, and limiting the “right to be informed” and carry “on a democratic and balanced dialogue” (MacBride, 1980, p.172) which are central to a modern, communicating society (Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2007).


The modern medusa?

It is the first time – at least within the European Union, that a government goes in to control and block an official domain

What happens when you interfere in the public sphere online (especially when not going all the way, like China)? Chop off one head, and several other appear. The moment the official domains for the referendum were blocked, online activists started creating new ones, mocking Spanish president Mariano Rajoy both directly and indirectly – and simultaneously reinforcing the case of the referendum.


The provocation effect has been obvious. Names like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and PirateBay founder Peter Sunde have officially declared their technical – and thus political – support.



But again the dilemma shows itself – from the other perspective. If the central government has prohibited something, should anyone be able to go against law enforcement?


The characteristics of the internet as a public sphere is that it is accessible to everyone with a connection. Anyone can operate on it, and anyone can share their opinion, and it can be done anonymously. The anarchistic structure makes it hard to control by laws, and the composition makes it impossible to resist the more skilled users. This is a democratic strength in the sense of giving the people a voice and a platform to engage in society. And it is a democratic weakness in the sense that it can be difficult to maintain the rule of law.

Mass mobilization in Catalonia. (Photo: Getty Images)


Enforcing rule of law online very easily interferes with the basic freedom of speech. It is obvious in a case like the Catalan one that the Spanish government did not achieve what they wanted by closing the .cat websites. Instead, they caught international attention by limiting civil rights through drastic measures – and they provoked the Catalan civil society to an even bigger mobilization.



Macbride, S. (1980). “Many Voices, One World”, Report by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, Paris and London: Unesco and Kogan Page.

Cammaerts, B. and Carpentier, N. (2007). Reclaiming the Media. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Books.



  1. Clara Axblad

    It was especially interesting to read this piece yesterday, on the very day of the Catalan vote. Cause indeed voting happened, although national police were storming schools without refraining from occasional violence when sequestrating urns and ballots.

    Indeed this event posts several challenging and often disturbing questions. If we disregard the question whether the vote should be recognized and/or at least allowed and focus on the information aspect, in essence, as you write, it’s about civil rights vs rule of law.

    As the referendum has been ruled illegal, is information aimed at facilitating it illegal too? Or does the freedom of expression come first? Who ultimately owns content? Who is allowed to remove it and why?

    Just as you write, finding broadly acceptable and democratic answers to such questions is likely to become even more pressing as political life and opinion shaping is increasingly done online.

    Do you have any thoughts on where the answers should be sought? In national parliaments or regional bodies such as the EU, for them to be legally binding? Or on the international level as best practices? Or should it be left to a case by case basis for the media and public to judge?

    1. Julie

      Hi Clara

      Thank you for your long and thorough comment and brilliant question. It have been some very interesting days indeed – I watched it all Sunday from different tv-channels, and the situation is still very unpredictable. The referendum was also a proof of how internet interferes with political life, as it was made possible by putting the census online. That just gives your question more relevance.

      It is difficult to pin down how to deal with something that is constantly developing, and I see a big risk for laws being outdated very quickly, because they can’t possibly cover all situations of information sharing.

      I think the view on ownership of content depends on your own political values – just as it plays out in Spain these days. If you believe in the system (national, supranational), there would be no problem in implementing laws on content ownership. If you on the other hand believe in complete self-determination and individualism, then strict rules on the otherwise “limitless” internet would not appeal to you.

      Personally, I do not believe that national rules would do any good, as the internet does not follow political borders. When, for instance, Spain in this case shut down websites, people could just open new ones. A national set of laws would not control content, but just move it to another platform.

      The appealing element of the internet is that it is so democratic that anyone can challenge the power-holder. For me, that is a very important part of a democratic society.

      A balance is crucial. I think it is important with some restrictions when it comes to illegal content – maybe on international level, as cyberspace is an international phenomenon – but there should be enough room for some healthy, controversial debates and actions. If nobody challenges the system, it will never improve.

      A practical challenge is also that there will always be too much content to control, and too many skilled people out there that are not working for any governments or multilateral institutions. And of course the providers and companies such as the GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) who have access to the content. How can you control them?

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  3. Melissa Andersson

    Hi Julie,

    Very intersting article and good presentation of the competing concepts of presevation of the state vs. people’s own rights for self determination. It would also be interesting to explore further the questions connected to how Catalonia relates to the Spanish government but also how it might think it could relate to the EU if they were to declare independence. Interesting times in many places of the world where stability at the moment might have a higher value than usual with so much of the world feeling a bit uncertain and shifting at the moment. Thanks for sharing your ideas about this with other fellow comdev students and the greater web 2.0 audience as well.

    1. Julie

      Hi Melissa

      Thank you for your feedback:)
      Yes, it is very interesting times indeed – and I think you are absolutely right in saying that stability is rated very high these days.

      As for the relationships, it relates very much to the MGD course, identity and culture. The independentists feel culturally and linguistically oppressed by Spain, which now is carrying on some of Franco’s ideas of the “unity” of Spain (although ethnically diverse). I even read a political scientist’s analysis, calling Spain’s actions in this ‘colonial behaviour’. Catalonia wants to have a closer connection with the EU – as they want to represent themselves (being the wealthiest region in Spain as well).

      I find this conflict very interesting, as it really touches upon so many dilemmas within democracy, states and rights. And further, the use of media is striking. Yesterday, the Spanish government announced that they would pull article 155 of the constitution and withdraw all autonomy from Catalonia and control everything from Madrid – INCLUDING the regional tv stations. Then we are talking heavy action.
      And let’s see what that does to online and citizen media, if the pro-Catalan voices are silenced in the public media.

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