I grew up in apartheid South Africa, which was a rather authoritarian state. In order to stifle critism, the government made opposition parties illegal, and also censored the media.
I only really became aware of the censorship after the fall of apartheid, when I started seeing adverts on TV for tampons and condoms. I’m not sure how adults knew before which products to buy to take care of their leaky genitals. Indeed, up until that point I don’t think I even knew what a tampon or a condom was.
I was also quite surprised to suddenly see pornography in stores. I was still too young to legally purchase any, but I could see the magazine covers. What surprized me the most was the sheer abundance of choice of a thing which hadn’t even existed a few months prior.
I learnt that Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison. Oddly, I felt embarrassed to admit that I had no idea who he was. Honestly, I’d never heard of him before; but then again why would I have? I had been living within an information bubble.
In school we were taught to be quiet and to speak only when spoken to. They used to hit us with sticks if we disobeyed. You may think I am exaggerating; you would be wrong. Some teachers would have the cane hanging by a cord at the door to their classroom, others would simply send disruptive students to the headmaster for “attitude reajustment”.
Such a system naturally encourages self-censorship. I censored my speech, and to a certain extent I censored my thoughts too. It was easier to keep my mouth shut and to banish from my mind anything that could be considered subversive.
Apartheid fell in 1994, a short while before the widespread arrival of the internet and the web. I have often wondered what effect the internet would have had on that regime. Perhaps none at all. It may be more difficult to censor the internet than traditional media such as newspapers and television, but the People’s Republic of China have certainly proved that it is technically possible if you have the will.
I have worked for a number of corporations for the past 15 years, in South Africa, Ireland and France. Over the years I have noticed an increasing sophistication in corporate internet censorship. While sitting at a desk at the CMA-CGM headquarters in Marseille, I happened to be catching up on some blogs on my coffee break, when I consulted an article about Tails, an operating system designed to protect online privacy and ensure anonymity. I had just learnt about this OS, and I was curious to learn more, but the corporate firewall blocked me, saying that the article I was trying to consult fell into the restricted category “proxy avoidance”.
I sat there stunned for a moment. Proxy avoidance. I wasn’t allowed to see a webpage which might provide me with information that might help me circumvent the corporate censonship that I was currently experiencing. I closed the page and glanced around nervously. Had my activity been logged? Would I be considered a subversive element in the corporate structure?
Why were they even bothering to censor this stuff anyway? After all, I could just whip out my smartphone and continue reading over the mobile phone network, which is exactly what I did.
Except Western governments are starting to censor the general internet now too. Its content you probably don’t want to see anyway, like “extreme pornography”, Jihadism, Nazism, but seriously, where does this slippery slope lead? “We had to destroy democracy to protect it.” Oh the irony.
It so happens that I got arrested recently, for possession of 2 grammes of cannabis, which is illegal in France, although quite frankly I don’t believe I was harming anyone. I wrote about the experience and put it online. My sister called me and asked me if I thought it was a good idea to publish this fact for the world to see, especially potential employers. What a perfect example of self-censorship.
In fact, one of the reasons I started writing this website was to overcome the brainwashing I received as a child which I mentioned earlier. Freedom of speech is a great thing, but for that freedom to be worth anything I need to exercise the right.
Henceforth I will write whatever I want, within the limits of the law, and then some. I would rather starve to death than censor myself another day. Any company who wouldn’t hire me because of my writings is a client I don’t want anyway.