April 20, 2024

How the Internet has become less free…by stealth

The power of the Internet to bring like-minded people together is one of the most wonderful and terrifying things. For more than a decade, Internet users have harnessed the power of mass online communication to create movements, expose wrongdoing, and share important information; They have also harassed groups and individuals, circulated illicit materials, and disseminated destructive information. And in a society that reveres artists for their bravery in challenging authoritarian regimes, we too often ignore the insidious creep of the chilling of free speech, not just in our own backyards but in our own pockets.

Increasingly, governments around the world have recognized this unwieldy power and have sought to control it by various means. According to Freemuse State of Artistic Freedom 2023 report: “The increasing use of social media platforms to mobilize anti-government activism and spread artistic content has resulted in some governments restricting online freedom, passing new laws or expanding existing laws.” In recent efforts to take control, political regimes have cut off all Internet access or shut down social media in times of conflict, such as during protests in Iran and India, and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine; they have expanded laws to criminalize online content, as in Cuba; and have even tolerated or ordered online harassment directed at artists, such as Brazilian artist Órion Lalli, a political refugee in France. On a panel at the World Ethical Data Forum in 2022, he recounted: “All the harassment I have experienced, and my experience as a refugee, started as online attacks, which were orchestrated by members of the party of [President Jair] Bolsanaro. Whether through internet shutdowns, sanctioned harassment, surveillance, political pressure on companies, or even legislation aimed at protecting children online, artists are among the first to feel the effects of government interference.

Shadow bans have drowned out voices challenging the status quo; self-censorship and harassment proliferate; Payment platforms and processors have canceled artists’ accounts; and our digital landscape is increasingly shaped by the interests of those who want to regulate access and communication. Online artists have long battled misguided content moderation policies and strict community guidelines that delete and suppress art on a daily basis. For many, the impact of online censorship means more than loss of visibility, but also loss of income, safe spaces, and community. This is particularly true for artists from already marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ+, women, disabled artists, and those living under authoritarian regimes.

New wave of threats

Over the years, many artists have become accustomed to the black box of platform algorithms, choosing to spoil their artwork with self-censorship or adapting their practice to remain visible online, although recent events have left Of course, even those efforts have little benefit. effect.

While the inner workings of social media platforms continue to generate frustration among at-risk artists, a new wave of threats to freedom of artistic expression online is already looming. Often under the guise of protecting children online, a large number of laws have been introduced and implemented in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, attempting to regulate the Internet and control the autonomy of large platforms. While some laws seek to establish ethical reporting and transparency by companies, a worrying number threaten to end online privacy and attack content that lawmakers simply don’t like in the name of children’s online safety. These laws have digital rights groups on alert, as growing conservatism and rushed legislation can easily result in chilling free expression online. Their fears are not simply speculative, and the impact of Internet regulation legislation goes beyond borders; The 2018 implementation of FOSTA-SESTA in the US, which aimed to reduce online sex trafficking, resulted in an international purge of online art and creatives, lost revenue, and platforms repeatedly mistaking works of art for sexual solicitation.

Those in liberal democracies who would want to restrict trans rights, sex education, or opposing political ideologies have found that Internet regulatory legislation is key to censoring expression without the government doing so explicitly, and they have not been shy about those goals. U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who supports the particularly controversial Child Online Safety Act moving through the U.S. Congress, said it would “protect minor children from transgender people.” [sic] in our culture.” Similarly, much of the American legislation that seeks to “protect children” is supported by conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and NCOSE, formerly Morality In Media.

In the face of continued repression and the steady rise of conservative influence online, many artists have stood in solidarity with other marginalized groups. Despite their limitations, these groups have together collected data, created campaigns, and informed each other about threats to free expression on the Internet. Social media as a gathering place is a critical tool for many groups facing adversity, and our ability to tell our stories beyond our immediate inner circle is the essence of visibility. As such, many free speech advocacy groups are especially concerned by Meta’s recent announcement that “political” content, including “social issues,” will now be restricted on its platforms, especially in the wake of recent protests. viral messages and political actions that have originated on social networks.

We are used to associating censorship with government repressive measures, imprisoned artists and humanitarian protests. But a growing number of artists and human rights groups want to draw our attention to the quieter cooling of artistic expression that is infiltrating our society. Where art proliferates most effectively is online, but online is where artists face increasing risk to their artistic freedom. Censorship, whether directed or pressured by governments, or through poorly designed content moderation, is disturbingly effective; Self-censorship, erasure, accusations of illegality, and major obstacles to visibility are signs of a continued chilling of freedom of expression that has already impacted not only artists, but also those who wish to connect with them.

Emma Shapiro is the general editor of the international project Don’t Delete Art

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