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  • The Control of "Invasive" Ideas in a Digital Age
  • Agnes Callamard (bio)


With the end of World War Two, it seemed that much of the world emerged resolute to turn away from the horrors of genocide and massacre, as well as from authoritarianism, central control, and heavy censorship of any and all ideas deemed invasive and challenging of authority. The United Nations was established, international human-rights standards were introduced, the free market and free trade developed, and liberal democracies flourished—at least in some parts of the world. These developments also cleared the way for freedom of expression to become an international human-rights norm and, as such, to gain state protection.

Some 60 years later, the advent of the Internet constituted a significant, even radical and historical turning point in the realization of freedom of expression. The Internet not only proclaimed and enabled the global exchange of ideas across borders; it also announced the advent of a new world—a world without sovereignty, a world of no government, no central control. The vision of this first digital generation was to unleash a new social contract: with a truly global technology, a new (online) world was to emerge, and its rules and governance would arise organically (Barlow 1996). In that new world, ideas were to flow unhindered, largely uncontrolled except by the working of the technology. These were Internet "genesis" claims, hyperbolic but not entirely beyond the realm of reality. [End Page 119]

Not surprisingly, in this new world, conceptions of freedom loomed far larger than notions of control or censorship. Regulation, censorship, and control of ideas could only be conceived as the collateral "damage" of technological developments, of glitches in need of corrections, reached through a collective and transparent process. The early-days Internet was off limits to legislation and control by political authorities and institutions, the traditional instruments of censorship.

Such a state of affairs (as idealized as it may have been by Internet founders) shifted progressively and then considerably over the past decade, with Internet management and governance the object of a range of competing and acrimonious claims. The governance of the Internet, of which regulation and censorship are key elements, has become a central subject of inquiry and concern, at the heart of international disputes, amongst states and between state and nonstate actors.

If the initial vision of a free flow of information across frontiers is no longer the order of the day, what kind of freedom and what kinds of control and censorship have emerged in the online world of the 2010s? Has the revolutionary technology unleashed and allowed control over ideas, as unprecedented as the global exchange of ideas it has also permitted?


Ideas have been censored throughout history—from the banning of Bibles produced in the vernacular German language to the burning of books in Nazi Germany and the purging of artists and writers in the Soviet Union—because they were perceived and defined by those in power as threatening the cohesion of a community (geographically based or not), the mores and/or the orthodoxy of a dogma upon which the community, the country, the church, or the state is founded. In the views of the state or the church, such ideas were akin to an invasion of organized marauders intent on challenging or destroying the status quo, the order of things, the way society thought of itself, the systems of power allocation and distribution. [End Page 120]

From Socrates' death by poison for impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, to the censors in Rome responsible for both public accounting and oversight of mores in society, and to the early days of the Inquisition—all of these testify to the existence of organized control over ideas as a method of governance and of the preservation of power structures. The advent of Gutenberg's printing press and its capacity for mass production of information—and thus the development of a new and expanding literate class—heightened the necessity of censorship from the standpoint of those in power.

Censorship by church and state, in turn, produced resistance, resulting in the adoption of the 1689...


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pp. 119-145
Launched on MUSE
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