Course taster

Censoring the web

The web reflects the many diverse aspects of human activity and behaviour – from the very best through to the worst. In addition, cyberspace provides an environment in which this reflection can be distorted. Some people act completely out of character (often in quite unpleasant ways), while others develop one or more virtual renditions of themselves that may well bear little (if any) resemblance to the reality of their lives. This is made possible by the anonymity that cyberspace offers – it is a domain in which people can put to one side the frustrations of everyday life and the pressures to conform to the expectations of society.

Many persist in the belief that cyberspace should be free from censorship – a land unfettered by governmental interference. As we have noted, this sentiment is often underpinned by a belief that web censorship directly infringes on an individual's right to freedom of expression. However, as indicated above, in our everyday lives, we all exist within a framework of self-imposed censorship and accept this without question. In parallel, we accept a degree of externally imposed censorship – particularly in relation to issues that negatively impact on the well-being of others and in situations involving exploitation. In this context, take a look at the Activity below.


It is often claimed that adults have a right to view all forms of online video-based material – provided that it concerns the actions of consenting adults. Is this a valid argument, given that it is likely to be impossible to determine whether all participants have freely consented (as opposed to consent being driven by poverty or coercion)?

There is evidence that governmental censorship and surveillance of the web are continuing to increase. This is noted by the Freedom House organisation, which indicates that:

Internet freedom has declined for the sixth consecutive year, with more governments than ever before targeting social media and communication apps as a means of halting the rapid dissemination of information, particularly during antigovernment protests.

Freedom House (2016)

It is estimated that there are presently some 3.3 billion Internet users. Not only do many of these people experience major censorship of the content and applications that they are able to access but they also live within environments in which self-imposed censorship is essential (see Table below).

Table: Exemplar risks associated with online activities.

Percentage estimates of the 3.3 billion Internet users who face serious risks for 'inappropriate' Internet activities %
Percentage of users located in countries in which criticism of the government, military or ruling family has been subject to censorship 67%
Percentage of users located in countries where computer technology users have been arrested or imprisoned for posting material on political, religious or social issues 60%
Percentage of users located in countries where individuals have been attacked or killed for online activities (since June 2015) 49%
Percentage of users located in countries where online insults in respect of religion have led to censorship or imprisonment 47%
Percentage of users located in countries where individuals have been arrested for making, sharing or liking Facebook postings 27%

Source: Adapted from Freedom House (2016)

In order to highlight the diverse aspects of web-based censorship, in the next three sections, we will examine three specific examples. Firstly, we consider the use of Internet technologies in supporting the 'Arab Spring' uprisings. We then briefly discuss developments in China in relation to the 'Great Firewall' (or 'Golden Shield'), and subsequently we look at debate that has taken place in the UK in relation to countering extremism.