The HumanIPO Debate: Is there a case for digital censorship?

In the first of a new series, HumanIPO reporters and guest writers debate important issues within the African tech sector, inviting readers to join in the discussion on Twitter and Facebook. We begin with digital censorship, which remains a hot topic, particularly in Africa, where social media was credited with fuelling the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and where Ethiopia’s government stands accused of cracking down on the likes of Skype and Google Talk.

But is there really any need? HumanIPO reporters Elly Okutoyi and Vince Matinde debate the merits and demerits of online censorship.

The Case For: Elly Okutoyi

It has been globally proposed that no form of digital censorship should be applied to online usage, as it is a breach of fundamental rights of freedom of expression. Yet digital censorship has a share of advantages that cannot be overlooked.

Barring people from posting wrong, provocative, hateful and malicious writings online could serve to limit the effects of such posts, which can lead to social unrest including civil wars, ethnic clashes and even international crises. Uncontrolled online resources can have serious repercussions for a nation, though in the wake of social media and mobile Web monitoring is increasingly complicated, with governments forced to invest heavily in the latest gadgetry to stay on top.

Humans need to live in a society free from unwarranted behaviour and exposure to explicit content. The Internet has made pornographic pictures and videos easily accessible. Without proper monitoring and filtering structures in place, porn will continue to penetrate the society at the current alarming rates.

Intellectual property accessible online should be safe and protected. Cases where authors put a lot of hard work into publishing journals, books and articles online only for offenders to plagiarise the work are commonplace. Creators of intellectual property have lost millions of dollars just because censorship against copyright infringement is not actively applied to all online resources.

People globally have lobbied for online freedom and privacy. However, the question that needs to be answered is whether online freedom can exist without some level of censorship. If we decide that it cannot, and censorship is necessary, then who should monitor what happens online to ensure that the freedom and security of others are not infringed?

The Case Against: Vince Matinde

Several governments in Africa and the Arab nations have now taken keen interest in monitoring and cracking down on social media, to a detrimental effect. Commentators at the recent Social Good Summit in Nairobi universally condemned the moves.

Egyptian blogger Amira Mikhail said that social media gave a voice to the voiceless, as demonstrated by the Arab Spring, while cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, popularly known as Gado, maintains that there should be no censorship at all on digital media as it will curtail free speech. Reporters Without Borders have also raised the alarm over Internet interference by the governments, particularly in the case of Ethiopia.

Social media represents free speech on the Internet. As much as self-censorship is needed, the governments need to allow its citizens to speak freely on issues that affect their lives. Governments should also be proactive rather than reactive. Reactive measures to silence its critics are Stone Age acts to establish dictatorships across African nations. Private companies have opened up such spaces to hear from the people they serve about their products andservices. Why would African governments want to go back in time?

The intended introduction of online monitoring tools in Kenya and elsewhere could also be used for private espionage, where censorship and monitoring spills over to the private sector for all the wrong reasons. The Internet would cease to be a “free” medium and many corporate bodies would shy away from the net.

Putting foreign systems in place would invite other countries to pry into the private Internet spaces of their competitors. This would sound a death knell for the free world of the Web.

The Internet was meant to make communication easier, freer and, lately, more private. Companies like Google and Facebook have faced numerous criticisms of processes that sometimes leave users exposed.

Having someone else pry into your social media and email accounts does not only discourage use of such media but also puts people in danger of losing information to the wrong people.

What do you think? Join the debate using #DigitalCensorship @humanipo

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