Internet Censorship and New Political Power of the People Using the Web


Shirky (2010) stresses how people can make use of Social Media for democratic action.

What happens if such political freedom gained through the Web 2.0 is censored, has been shown in the case of instant messaging being taken down and later the entire mobile Internet being put down by the government for days in the state of Gujarat, India.

The smartphone app Whats App has been reportedly used to organize these riots, which also led to various deaths and the government chose the drastic way of putting a curfew on the entire mobile Internet.

However, taking the entire infrastructure of the mobile Internet down for an entire state, with millions of inhabitants, shows what limitations the political use of social media and democracy can have in the real world context.

It further gives an idea, how vulnerable the infrastructure of the Internet is, when it comes to top-down governance approaches, like taking the Internet off for more than 60 million people in the state of Gujarat this year.

The Internet is vulnerable to the impact of the state, as the example shows, because the state still can intervene. Only in a working democracy, where the infrastructure of the Internet is not over-legislated, the potential of the Internet can be used by the people for democratic action to the fullest potential.

2 Comments to "Internet Censorship and New Political Power of the People Using the Web"

  1. Michael O'Regan's Gravatar Michael O'Regan
    October 10, 2015 - 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Hey Chris,

    Shirky’s article suggests that the Indian government imperils its medium-term authority by taking such censorious measures, irrespective of whether or not they were warranted by public safety concerns.

    Indeed, the Gujarat shutdown exemplifies all the elements of Briggs’ conservative dilemma, a techno-political condition whereby the proliferation of difficult to regulate social media outlets for civic expression challenges the state’s “monopoly on free speech, [and the state] finds itself called to account” (Shirky, 2011, p. 36).

    The decision to temporarily shutter—in the first instance—WhatsApp and—subsequently—mobile telephony more generally, was an impressive show of force, which demonstrated, as you write, “how vulnerable the infrastructure of the Internet is”.

    How long can the powers that be sustain this sort of behaviour, though? As Shirky (p. 37) notes, digital communication is now central to economic trade, and bystander populations may be moved to punish the authorities that disrupted their business activities in the name of foiling an (initially) sectional protest, generating a snowball effect.

    In many respects, the Patel movement illustrates that we’re a long ways away from the days when activist media was oftentimes restricted to easily surveilled and reined-in samizdat presses. Now that protests are organised, enacted, recorded, and reported using the same technologies that “the broader population uses to share pictures of cute cats”, (Ibid.) draconian, media-focused repression is increasingly impracticable. That the BBC article you link to states that those involved remained able to confab and confer on the wider internet, even after their preferred platforms had been made unavailable, only accentuates this impression.

    Of course, Shirky’s (p. 30) central contention is that social media’s greatest potential contribution to social change will be enabling the development of robust public spheres, and it’ll be interesting to see if or how this supposition manifests itself in the Indian public sphere, which, with its “subtle complexities [including] caste and language” (Belliappa, 2014, p. 147) already departs significantly from the prototypical Habermasian conceptualisation.

    Michael O’Regan

    Belliappa, J.L. (2014). Public Discourses on Gender, Modernity and Assaults on Women in India. In. T. Askanius (Ed.), Reclaiming the public sphere: Communication, power and social change, (pp.137-151). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Shirky, C. (2011). The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change in Foreign Affairs 90: 28-I

    • Marco's Gravatar Marco
      October 20, 2015 - 5:55 pm | Permalink

      Interesting, and scary, too. I agree with the points Michael raises and Shirky is an excellent basis for a subsequent discussion.

      In view of Briggs’ conservative dilemma I’d like to shift the attention a bit to China, too. As you know, internet censorship is a common practice there – including filtering of search engine results, limiting the access to foreign media and social networks, and watching over content that is published on Chinese websites. Here’s an interesting chart the Foreign Policy Magazine compiled, showing what internet users in China have to keep in mind before posting anything online.

      However, China’s economy has been growing year in and year out, and we have yet to see how the stock market crash in June affects the country in the long term. The dilemma is a bit simplified as there are obviously other factors that need to be taken into account. Does anyone of you know about further research in this regard?

      The Chinese case is also interesting in another aspect. Shirky highlights one of the strongest critiques on social media tools when she says, “they produce as much harm to democratization as good, because repressive governments are becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent” (2011, p.6). This might also go the other way around, though, ultimately resulting in a game of cat-and-mouse.

      For instance, Quartz Magazine describes how the New York Times uses a couple of different strategies to elude Chinese censors – including publishing copies of articles on mirror sites and in apps, which often results in them being overlooked for weeks or months at a time. Here’s the article.

      Fighting censorship also extends to technical solutions. During the Umbrella Revolution, in which Hong Kong citizens went on the streets to protest for a democratic election process of their leadership elections, the Chinese government cut off the internet and cellular networks in parts of the city. To continue to organise themselves, the protesters used FireChat, a mesh network app. The app allowed them to create local decentralised networks between their mobile devices, without the need to connect to a cell tower. I’m sure we could see similar developments in India and elsewhere.

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