What happens when political measures are taken on the internet? Does it limit the public sphere, or is cyberspace too anarchistic to affect?
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.
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.
If you're running a Catalan site being shut down by Spanish authorities, contact me for anonymous hosting and domains. We've got you covered
— Peter Sunde (@brokep) September 18, 2017
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.
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.