Censorship of Digital Resources Worldwide

Censorship of Digital Resources Worldwide

Kari D. Weaver (University of South Carolina Aiken, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5888-2.ch211
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Background

Although censorship is a familiar concept, a precise definition is challenging. In this article, “censorship” is defined as “ the action or the use of authority to limit access to information that would otherwise be available in the public sphere.” Common justifications for censorship include morality, obscenity, blasphemy, or national security. It can be performed by individuals, groups, corporations, or governments and their agents.

Censorship has existed throughout civilized history. The word “censor” is derived from Latin, when censors within the Roman Empire conducted the census and other state functions while regulating morality under Roman rule (Pina Polo, 2012). Censorship has been practiced worldwide, primarily through religious institutions or by governments acting as agents of the church. Book banning and burning has played an important role in European history, such as in France during the Enlightenment, in the USSR during the Bolshevik revolution, and in Germany during the Weimar Republic (Lyons, 2011). There were few laws regulating censorship of information until 1789, when the Constitution of the United States of America was adopted, and individual freedoms, including the right to free speech, became protected. Since then, similar laws have been adopted by other countries around the world (Passavant, 2002).

Today, information has become a digital commodity, and individuals are now limited less by the laws of their home countries and more by international standards. However, no international laws address censorship, and it was only in 2011 that the United Nations Human Rights Council identified unfettered Internet access as a human right (La Rue, 2011). International law regarding information theft lags behind even the UN report, as prosecutions are based on the laws of the countries in which the crimes were perpetrated. Depending upon the country, these laws can be extremely restrictive, very broad, or potentially even in violation of internationally-recognized human rights agreements (La Rue, 2011).

Educational institutions have historically had a special role within society, with libraries and universities acting as both repositories of knowledge and points of information access for their communities. Libraries are common targets for censorship because removing a book from a personal collection blocks access for one person, whereas removing it from the library blocks access for the whole community. As Byrne (2003) notes, librarians cultivate a “professional narrative of non-judgmental, disinterested provision of access to information” which “confers a legitimacy on their professional choices to make available or not make available” (Byrne, 2003, p. 7). Libraries have historically taken all sides on censorship debates - sometimes removing materials, keeping them in place, or relocating them to special sections. Broadly, though, libraries tend to focus on preserving, protecting, and providing access to information, as can be seen in their central role in preserving culture in locations as varied as Afghanistan and Colombia (Knuth, 2003, 2006).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Wikileaks: A website designed to allow whistleblowers to anonymously submit information for distribution to the public.

Microblog: A blogging service focused on short entries, usually limited by a number of words or characters.

Net Neutrality: A concept of Internet governance stating that all network traffic should be handled without regard to content, source/destination, or interfacing equipment.

Information Communication Technologies (ICT): Hardware, software, or network technologies that allow a user to create, edit, find, store, or share information. Examples include mobile phones, computers, intranets, social media platforms, telecommunications services, and the Internet.

IP Address: A set of numbers which specify a unique network address for a computer on a network.

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN): The international organization that coordinates addressing and protocols for communication on the Internet, ensuring the interoperability of communication around the globe.

Censorship: The action or the use of authority to limit access to information that would otherwise be available in the public sphere. Censorship is often undertaken for concerns over morality, obscenity, blasphemy, or national security. It can be performed by individuals, groups, corporations, or governments and their agents.

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