The term “censorship” derives from The Latin, “censere”, meaning to give as one’s opinion, to assess. The Roman censors were magistrates who took the census count and served as assessors and inspectors of morals and conduct. One of the most powerful and prestigious offices in the ancient Roman Republic was the censor. It was their duty to conduct the census—an account of all the citizens and their properties, an appraisal of an individual Roman’s qualifications for certain honours and ranks, and a division of the people into distinct social classes.
Censors had authority to both assess tax liability and noble rank, making the tandem who shared this office incredibly powerful. For this reason, the Patrician ruling class originally preluded the Plebian commoners from eligibility to hold the office of censor. Just as in modern politics, the elites were unprepared to trust a mere commoner with the power to decide who was worthy of joining their exclusive social club.
Over time, this duty to conduct an official census expanded to include other substantial powers. The censors held sole authority to determine whether a Roman citizen qualified for distinguished ranks and to adjudicate whether that citizen had committed any social infractions rendering them unworthy of retaining such ranks; the censors thus became de facto wardens of the public morals, or “regimen morum.” The jurisdiction to regulate proper Roman character and habits—to judge those Romans found wanting—made censors both revered and feared. They were known as castigatories (chastisers) for their power to create and enforce public opinion by granting or withholding noble rank. They were essentially Rome’s original enforcers of political correctness. This authority to regulate both the public and private lives of Roman citizens gave rise to the modern meanings of the terms “censor” and “censorship.”
These immense powers over property assessment, tax liability, qualification for noble rank and general political correctness naturally established an additional power: administration of Rome’s finances and its public works. As custodians of public morals and regulators of state taxes, the censors exercised broad discretion over expenditure of public money on roads, aqueducts, bridges, theaters, and temples. They decided which businessmen would be awarded lucrative contracts by Rome and what kinds of labourers would benefit from new public works projects. By controlling the flow of money and jobs, the censors could choose the winners and losers in the economy.
In contrast to this straight-forward definition from Roman times, contemporary usage offers no agreed upon definition of the term or when to use it. Even questions of whether the word itself applies to a given controversy is often vigorously contested. If these authoritarian powers sound remarkably familiar to Westerners today, that is because our governments have fully embraced the role of the ancient Roman censors—dividing society into deserving and undeserving classes, promulgating and enforcing WOKE public morals, and engaging in partisan tax-and-spend policies. Just as with Rome’s censors, ours ostensibly work for the “public good.” Regrettably, unlike the many illustrious Roman censors of 2.5 millennia ago, today’s version is not known for exhibiting exceptional character or honour—never mind nobility.
It is also worth noting how our modern understanding of ‘censorship’ derives from the magisterial duties to record rank, accumulated wealth, and tax liability. Censors maintaining a public census naturally promote a kind of censorship. When governments know what is in our bank accounts, they have indirect influence over what we can say. Just ask Brexit exponent Nigel Farage or anyone else “de-banked” for publicly expressing their dissenting political views. Or consider that the Trudeau government just rewarded the CRA with expanded budgets and more agents to intimidate ordinary taxpayers, even after it was revealed that over 600 CRA agents accepted illegal CERB payments during Covid—effectively defrauding Canadian taxpayers of many millions of dollars. Those who control what we may own also govern what we think; put another way, regulation of property rights also regulates life and liberty.
Western governments embrace widespread censorship today because they have gained tremendous leverage over our property. They do not need to conduct a census or inspect our forms to determine the size of our homes or the numbers of our various livestock. They simply conduct warrantless searches of our financial transactions, recorded debts, and digitized savings, or even freeze our bank accounts—while monitoring our movements and business activities. They do not need to formally assess our qualification for certain honours. They conduct covert searches of our phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media histories to determine whether we are ‘worthy’ of receiving state-bestowed group privileges or social-credit-score-enabled ranks. They need not chastise us for breaching ‘woke’ public morals. They simply ‘cancel’ us from the online public square and deny us access to the digital infrastructure connecting the modern world. Then, after seizing our savings through taxation, regulation, and currency manipulation, those same Western governments reward ‘green’ industries with contracts to build wind and solar farms, while taxing traditional growers and hydrocarbon energy producers out of existence.
Until we reclaim our private property rights and wrest control of currencies from overspending governments and their central bank enablers, censorship will only worsen. Using the protest of fighting Covid ‘misinformation’, the European Union passed the Digital Services Act empowering the EU Commission to not only censor websites owned and operated inside of Europe, but also to quarantine ‘offending’ speech from websites run outside of Europe. In effect, European censors will determine what types of ‘disinformation’, ‘hate speech’, political dissent, and scientific arguments will be banned and what foreign information ordinary citizens will be permitted to see. Using the language of freedom while imposing the infrastructure of tyranny, the DSA induces fear over the ‘dangers’ of free speech in order to punish ‘wrong-think’. Just to add some weight to the Iron Curtain descending around Europe, a German court even sentenced one of its own judges recently for “ruling against the government’s mask mandates.” How is that for silencing dissent?
Meanwhile, The U.K. has its own Online Safety Bill to regulate ‘truth’ and punish ‘offenders’ through the Orwellian Office of Communications. That led police to show up at a woman’s house in London recently for posting on social media that a certain policewoman ‘looked like a lesbian’. Adding insult to injury, the offended officer described in the post was sent out to make the arrest. In 2022, the Freedom Convoy protests against Covid insanity showed how quick Canada was to freeze protestors’ bank accounts to suppress and punish dissent. In the U.S., the Biden administration established an unconstitutional Disinformation Governance Board (DGB) as a clearinghouse for permissible online speech. Just as threatening to the free exchange of ideas and scientific debate, the NIH has responded to pending litigation by only temporarily ‘pausing’ a $154M program to combat “medical misinformation” and establish “equitable health communication”—or, disrobed of its Marxist jargon, a program that would censor Americans for engaging in ‘unapproved’ science. After all, Dr. Fauci is The Science, aka The Truth.
Not to be outdone, despite three years of state sanctioned lies surrounding the origin of Covid, its lethality, the efficacy of masks, the availability of over the counter treatments, and the safety of vaccines (or lack thereof), Australia has proposed a bill to combat misinformation and disinformation that would categorize all government issued information as unquestionably true.
What could possibly go wrong when the same people empowered to collect taxes assert a monopoly upon the truth? Propaganda and political persecution flourish. Some of the worst inflation in the last century is dismissed as a “right-wing talking point.” Conservative lawyers are arrested for daring to fight against fraudulent elections. The news media unabashedly regulate public morals by claiming that dissent against WOKE policies should be understood as ‘racist’. Distinguished psychologists like Dr. Jordan Person are forced to undergo ‘re-education’ for their politically incorrect tweets under threat of losing their hard earned titles. As one Norwegian dissident learned the hard way, questioning the ‘science’ behind Covid mandates can even land you in a psychiatric ward. This is what the UN means by declaring war on ‘deadly disinformation.’
Two thousand years after their disappearance, Rome’s powerful censors of old are having a renaissance. Western citizens must again consign them to history. Government censorship is hardly a public health tool for fighting a pandemic. When wielded by governments, it is a political tool to narrow the marketplace of ideas. Information about Covid-19–good, bad, proven and speculative, true, false and unverifiable—has been coming at us at warp speed for the past four years. Now there are reports that the Trudeau government is considering a law aimed at criminalizing harmful pandemic misinformation. At this point, we must all be deeply skeptical about the use of criminal sanctions in this context.
Censorship is also flourishing in the Information Age. In theory, new technologies make it more difficult for governments to control the flow of information. Some have even argued that the birth of the internet foreshadowed the death of censorship. In 1993, John Gilmore, an internet pioneer, told Time Magazine that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
Today, many governments are routing around the liberating effects of the internet. Like entrepreneurs, they rely upon innovation and imitation. In countries such as Hungary, Ecuador, Turkey, and Kenya, officials are mimicking autocracies like Russia, Iran, or China by reducing critical news and building state media brands. They are also creating more subtle tools to complement the blunt instruments used by attacking journalists. Consequently, the internet’s promise of open access to independent and diverse sources of information remains real only for the minority still living in mature democracies—where it is quickly vanishing.
In Venezuela, internet usage is among the fastest growing in the world. This is even as the government there pursues an ambitious censorship program. Many methods used by the state there are beneath the waterline, and have surfaced in other countries. They include gaining influence over independent media, just as has occurred in Canada under the Trudeau regime.
In Hungary, the government’s media authority has the power to collect detailed information about journalists as well as advertising and editorial content. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s regime uses fines, taxes, and licensing to pressure critical media, and steers state advertising to friendly outlets. A comprehensive report by several global press freedom organizations recently concluded that Hungary’s independent media today faces creeping strangulation.
In Pakistan, the state regulatory authority suspended the license of Geo TV, the most popular channel in the country, after a defamation claim against it was made by state intelligence services following a shooting of one of the station’s best known journalists. The channel was off the air for 15 days. Pakistani journalists say that self-censorship and bribery there are rife.
In Turkey, a recent amendment to their internet laws granted the state Telecommunications Directorate authority to close any website or content “to protect national security and public order, as well as to prevent a crime.” Thousands of journalists have been imprisoned, while tax investigations and huge fines have been weaponized to retaliate for critical coverage. The government even blocked Twitter and other social media in response to a corruption scandal implicating the President and other senior officials.
In Russia, President Putin remade the media landscape in the government’s image. Multiple media outlets were blocked, shuttered, or saw their editorial lines change overnight in response to government pressure. While launching its own media operations, the government passed laws limiting foreign investment in Russian media. The measure took aim at publications like “Vedomosti”, a daily newspaper respected for its standards of independence and owned by three foreign media groups: Dow Jones, the Financial Times Group, and Finland’s Sanoma.
Traditional censorship was once an exercise of cut and paste. Government agents inspected the content of newspapers, magazines, books, movies, or news broadcasts, often prior to release, and suppressed or altered them so that only information judged acceptable would reach the public. For dictatorships, censorship meant that an uncooperative media outlet could be shut down or that unruly editors and journalists were exiled, gaoled, or murdered.
Journalism went online in the 1990’s, but censorship soon followed. Filtering, blocking and hacking replaced scissors and black ink. Some governments barred access to unfriendly Web pages, and then redirected users to sites that looked independent but which were state controlled; they even influenced the conversation in chat rooms and discussion groups via participation of trained functionaries. They directed anonymous hackers to vandalize the sites and blogs, and disrupted the internet presence of critics by defacing or freezing their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.
Tech-savvy activists quickly found ways to protect themselves and evade digital censorship. For awhile it looked like courageous, hyperconnected, and decentralized networks of activists, journalists and critics had the upper hand in a battle against centralized, hierarchical, and unwieldy government bureaucracies. But governments soon caught up; many went from spectators in the digital revolution to sophisticated early adopters of new technologies allowing them to monitor content, activists, and journalists, thereby directing the flow of information.
No nation shows the contradictions of this censorship contest on as grand as scale as China. The country with the most internet users and the fastest-growing connected populations is also the world’s most ambitious censor. China has 22% of the world’s internet users, more than twice that of the U.S. The CCP maintains the “Great Firewall” to block unacceptable content, including foreign news sites. Google cannot operate there. An estimated two million censors police the internet and the civilities of users. Yet the BBC reports that a recent poll found that 76% of Chinese respondents felt free of state surveillance—the highest amongst the 17 countries polled!
The internet has allowed Chinese authorities to deploy censorship strategies that are subtle and thus harder for the public to detect. In Hong Kong, where China was obliged by treaty to respect a free press, Beijing used an arsenal of measures to limit independent journalism, including selective violence against editors and the arrest of reporters. But it also arranged the firing of critical reporters and columnists and the withdrawals of advertising by state and private sources, including multinationals, and launched cyberattacks on websites.
China’s actions demonstrated the emerging censorship menu now being unveiled in Canada: it can be direct and visible, or indirect and stealthy. These stealth strategies have become important as more governments try to hide their efforts to control media. Stealth censorship can involve creating entities that look like private companies, or government organized, non-governmental organizations, known as GONGOS. These purport to represent civil society, but in practice are government agencies. This approach allows anonymous hackers in Russia or China who attack the networks of critics at home—or governments abroad—to be portrayed as mysterious members of the sprawling global civil society, rather than allies of the regime. Stealth censorship appeals to authoritarian governments seeking to appear democratic—or at least not look like old-style dictatorships—and they have more options available to them than ever before.
In illiberal democracies, how a government censors often reflects the tension between projecting an image of democracy and ruthlessly suppressing dissent. Some governments are trying to reconcile this contradiction by outsourcing censorship to groups that they secretly control—social media tech giants, for example. Or they use currency controls; or they promote migration of irritating journalists from major mass media outlets to online startups, where they must build new audiences. This allows the state to keep a grip on the news media while concealing their fingerprints. Or worse yet, as in Canada, governments become so brazen that they use tax dollars to purchase the fealty of formerly private media outlets before using them to propagandize, censor, and even punish citizens.
The Edward Snowden leaks revealed that the internet is a tool for peering into the lives of citizens, including journalists, for every government with the means to do so. Whether domestic spying in the U.S., Great Britain, or Canada qualifies as censorship is a matter of debate. At the very least, electronic snooping by government means that no one reporting on secrets can be promised anonymity. National security policies place the U.S., Canada, and other mature democracies in the same discussion with countries like Russia, which see the internet as both a threat and a means of control. Most of these countries have not even attempted to hide from charges that they perform surveillance via the internet. Instead, Russia, India, Australia, Canada, and others have approved security legislation writing this practice into law.
For every government that succeeds in controlling the free flow of information, there is a counter example. Courageous citizens have found ways to circumvent or undermine official controls; or shown that they are willing to risk opposing a government’s claims that it has the sole authority to write history. This power struggle is far from over, and its outcome will vary among countries and over generations. Technological innovation will create new options enabling individuals and organizations to counteract government censorship, even as governments adopt technologies to augment their censorship capabilities.
Pressures on government for transparency, accountability, access to public information, and more citizen participation in public excision will not go away. Autocratic states face populations that are more politically awake, restless, and harder to silence. But states retain extraordinary capacities to alter the flow of information to suit their interests, and a growing number of governments are undermining the checks and balances constraining CEOs. From Russia to Turkey, Hungary to Bolivia, leaders are packing Supreme Courts and the judiciary with loyalists and staging elections that reward their allies. They are weakening the very institutions that exist to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of oligarchs. In such a political environment, independent media and free speech cannot long endure.
Recent events have also raised questions about online censorship and the influence of social media giants. Elon Musk’s critique of Mark Zuckerberg’s manipulation of the masses through algorithmic control drew attention to the opacity surrounding data usage. Musk’s hypothetical scenario—revealing how algorithms manipulate user data—highlights growing concerns about data privacy and content manipulation on centralized platforms. On the other hand, Musk faces accusations by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—a quasi-government censorship agency—that intensified the debate by urging advertisers to boycott his social media platform X (Twitter), over concerns about increasing anti-Semitism.
These actions underscore the complex challenges faced by social media companies in moderating content and maintaining a balance between free expression, responsible content management, and increasing government pressure to silence dissenting voices on their platforms. There is a beacon of hope despite increasing data privacy and content manipulation concerns. Decentralization and user empowerment are the keys to shifting control away from centralized giants and back to individuals. As they pioneer solutions to address censorship concerns and privacy issues, decentralized social media protocols offer a glimpse into a better future for social media.
The internet can redistribute power. But it is naive to assume that there is a simple technological fix for governments and their leaders who are determined to concentrate power and do whatever it takes to keep it. Just as in Roman times, censorship will rise and fall as technological innovation and the hunger for freedom clash with governments hell bent on controlling us—starting with what we watch, read, hear, talk about, and ultimately, even what we think.
Leighton Grey KC is a lawyer practicing in Calgary and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.