November: The Internet & Censorship

As you’re reading this sentence now, the NSA has amassed 2.1 terabytes of data to review…

Shackled in poetic irony, the first workable prototype of the internet, which was spearheaded by the US Department of Defense in the late 1960’s, is today being used in many corners of the globe to oppress the voices of communities around the world and attack the liberties most of us take for granted.

Tim Berners-Lee would create the foundations to define our generation 24 years ago in 1990 with the invention of the World Wide Web. As surfing evolved on the digital wave of technology, so too has the black cloud of censorship grown increasingly tempestuous surrounding people’s freedom of speech. In relation, as Edward Snowden’s leaked files circulated out through the media, showing the magnitude of the National Security Agency’s collection and analysis of data that we all generate on a daily basis, highlighted just how powerful a weapon the internet has become.

Data is as precious a commodity in the 21st century as it is unique. Professor Arvind Narayanan of Princeton University elaborates on the fact that our online presence can be used to identify us within a 95% accuracy, ”Today, we need just 33 pieces of data to correctly identify a person.”

Google’s announcement at the start of 2014 caused controversy as they revealed it had acquired smoke-detector and thermostat manufacture Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. The reasoning behind it rests in the ability Google would have to amass data ranging from when people are at home to the rooms they occupy via the use of such sensors- adding a further dimension to user’s online habits.

The internet has changed the way we access information thanks to social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, but also in part to the way we consume content through smartphones and tablet devices. The news is composed and tailored by countless perspectives that allows us to see and be a part of events as they happen; creating a digital tapestry.

In recent times, the eyes of the world have been pointed sharply like sickles towards Russia and the hands of correspondents across the planet loom over keyboards like hammers poised to desecrate the actions of President Vladimir Putin over his country’s escalated conflict between Ukraine and the MA17 disaster in July of this year, which saw a civilian airliner shot down above Ukrainian airspace, with many sighting pro-Russian separatists being responsible. All 298 people died on board.

And the 2-day G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia last month only served to solidify how dire relationships have become with Putin and the other western leaders; according to BBC sources, the spokesman for the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper said that Mr Harper had told President Putin, ”I’ll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you; you need to get out of Ukraine.”

These feelings are not just felt in the West, but by numerous Russians. However, thanks to laws passed in June of this year, using the internet or social media to outpour negativity directed at the Kremlin could result in severe punishment- including a prison term of up to 5 years.

President Putin has openly admitted his viewpoint on the internet, after he blamed social media for igniting protests in Moscow with those present chanting ‘Russia without Putin’- that it is a ‘Central Intelligence Agency plot against Russia’, and this stance has reinforced legislation that is popularly known as the ‘laws on bloggers.’

From now on, bloggers with more than 3,000 daily readers must adhere to the same standards as the main media outlets across Russia and register with the mass media regulator Roskomnadzor. This means that they are forbidden from using swear words or foul language, from spreading ‘false information’ and from re-posting content on Facebook or Twitter considered ‘extremist.’

Hugh Williamson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch spoke on his views about Russia’s policing of the internet;

”The internet is the last island of free expression in Russia and these draconian regulations are clearly aimed at putting it under government control.”

One of the most high-profile cases that demonstrates the severity of the enforcement of these laws, and the rights of Russians in general, are the feminist punk band Pussy Riot. Formed in 2011, they grabbed the attention of the world after taking their mantra of voicing ‘the values and principles of gender equality, democracy and freedom of expression that are contained in the Russian constitution’, to the priests only section of Moscow’s Cathedral in February 2012 that was used for a music video entitled ‘Punk prayer- Mother of God, chase Putin away.’

Seen on YouTube and countless other websites by millions, this 1 minute performance was enough to imprison young mothers Maria Alyokhina (24) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (23) for ‘hooliganism’ for almost 2 years. Shocked and appalled by Russia’s treatment of these women, the world united in their support for Pussy Riot and the defiance they resolutely conveyed throughout their ordeal.

Undeterred, Maria Alyokhina was back with Pussy Riot to record a video to their new song ‘Putin Will Teach You To Love The Motherland‘ outside of the 2014 Winter Olympics venue in Sochi this February. After being whipped and attacked with tear gas by Cossacks and plain-clothed security officers, Maria spoke to VICE news about standing up to the government and continuing being a part of the band,

”There is no security here for civil rights activists or political activists or just regular people who want to say that they disagree with the authorities. The government behaves shamelessly because there is almost no information about this and our job is to make sure that the information comes out. Our job is to tell the truth as loudly as possible.”

True, the internet may be a crutch that this generation rests too heavily upon, but when that same crutch is used to beat down the freedom of speech people have a right to express without fear of punishment from its government, then serious questions have to be raised over whether this kind of censorship has any capacity in the 21st Century or should find its place amongst the other relics of the Cold War era.

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