In China, Google can block the searching of your name if you’re considered to be a revolutionary. That was the case of pro-democracy professor Guo Kwan, who raised his voice against that discrimination in 2008. When using Google in China, other words are selectively excluded as well: “Its search engine in China had been configured to filter out words that are effectively banned in China, such as Tibet independence, Dalai Lama and democracy,” Jane McCartney of the Times reports. This is a clear example of censorship by a huge corporation which is violating free speech as well as access to information. But Google says it’s just following the rules: “Google and other foreign internet service providers defend their actions, saying that they are acting in accordance with Chinese law and the conditions of doing business in China.”
The First Amendment defenders of the U.S. would be up in arms if words were censored; we have every right to search for any information we might want or need. But censorship by major companies isn’t unique to faraway Communist regimes. Just last week, Rupi Kaur, a college senior, posted art from a school project on Instagram. Below is the photo in question:
It’s one in a series of photos about periods. Kaur said she posted it online to share her work; she didn’t expect for her photo to be taken down– not once, but twice.
“Instagram’s terms of service do limit what kind of content you can share on the platform, but its restricti ons only prohibit images that are ”violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive,’” explained Motherboard. “There’s no mention of menstrual blood.”
Once Kaur’s photo was removed online, she used Facebook to ask people to recognize Instagram’s wrongs. They apologized, claiming that it was flagged by users as inappropriate.
This is 2015. This photo is art. Yet it is reminiscent of content censored by the Comstock laws more than a century ago. PBS explains: “On March 3, 1873, Congress passed the new law, later known as the Comstock Act. The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines.” Not only was mailing birth control devices illegal, but so was disseminating any information considered “lewd.” This led to the jailing and destitution of brilliant journalists from Margaret Sanger to Ezra Heywood.
It’s terrifying to realize that a man like Anthony Comstock rose through our government and passed this legislation without the American people even noticing. But that’s the government. We expect to have to call out our government in publications. But today those publications are online, available through Google searches and Facebook pages. Available, that is, through giant, government-separated, extremely wealthy companies that can censor media sharers like Rupi Kaur however they want to. Although she went to Facebook to call out Instagram, well, Facebook owns Instagram. The power to raise our voices is very much centralized. We can check-and-balance our government, we can check-and-balance our mainstream media, but how are we going to do either when the very platforms provided to us are censored?