The technology of censorship

The internet and the world wide web once held a revolutionary promise for good.

The technologists were idealistic about it: information wants to be free, they said, and so it would be. The internet was originally designed to withstand a nuclear strike, so it could certainly withstand a roadblock. If anyone tried to block information going by one route, it would simply find another way. The internet would democratise, empower, expose and, in the process, the truth would come out. It would be the end of censorship because it would become impossible.

That was only a couple of decades ago, but that vision now seems like an impossible dream. Countries have discovered they can pretty effectively limit internet activity – or at least make it difficult for most of their population. Not only that, they can interfere to provide their version of the truth in other jurisdictions beyond their own.

Not all censorship is bad. Few people are complete libertarians. When material online incites hatred, violence or criminality, for example, most people would support stopping it, even in our liberal democracies. Every society censors something, but some censor a lot more than others.

In the latest issue of E&T we explore the subject of censorship and technology, wherever that may be found, for better or worse.

While the social media networks find themselves subject to censorship, sometimes it is the networks themselves that act as the censors, and Paul Dempsey asks if they are getting any better at making the right decisions.

Many of us act as censors for our children – or perhaps should do if we don’t. Parents are the censors that teenagers most worry about. Age restrictions are easily circumvented. It’s easy to lie about your age, but Tim Fryer finds out how that could all change with new age verification technology. Perhaps households should be careful what they are saying too? Martin Courtney looks at how voice-activated digital assistants in the homes could be recording our every word if we’re not careful.

Censorship goes hand in hand with surveillance. In an exclusive investigation, Josh Loeb finds out how the good guys are using advanced technology to keep an eye on the bad guys. He discovers the UK police is well advanced in face recognition technology yet is using only a fraction of its capabilities.

Internet communication isn’t the only data open to interference. Ships off the coast of Russia have found their GPS telling them they are in an airport. Spoofing GPS is more dangerous than jamming it and Hilary Clarke finds out where it’s happening and why, while our very own Vitali Vitaliev recalls censorship and jamming in the Soviet Union long before the days of the internet, Facebook and GPS. Censorship, it seems, will always find a way.

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