Bypassing Online Censorship

This post reiterates a theme this blog had for a long time. If you don’t own your publishing platform, you’re at the mercy of whoever does. I’m bringing this topic up again for two reasons. The first reason is as a response to the number of messages friends keep sending me about individuals or groups they follow, all of whom express opinions not in line with the party in power, being removed from the likes of Twitter and Facebook. The second reason is to give some historical context about the nature of avoiding censorship.

Whenever somebody alerts me that an anarchist, libertarian, Austrian economist, or any other individual outside of the mainstream gets banned from Twitter or Facebook, I roll my eyes. Of course they were removed. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, etc. are all services that depend on having a large user base. Any online service that depends on having a large user base is going to cater to the mainstream. Moreover, the mainstream attitude is very much in favor of censorship. In order to cater to the mainstream, these services will remove anybody who expresses ideals outside of the mainstream.

Censorship isn’t a new phenomenon. I will actually argue that it’s the norm rather than the exception. The concept of free speech as we understand it is the product of Enlightenment thinking. And while the Enlightenment was popular throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t as popular throughout the rest of the world and its popularity has waned significantly in Europe. But even Enlightenment thinkers often supported censorship of ideas they found especially distasteful.

Just as censorship isn’t a new phenomenon, neither is bypassing censorship. Anarchists are often targets of censorship. Not surprisingly many governments overtly censored anarchists, but even private publishers are often unwilling to publish and distribute material written by anarchists. As a result zines became a popular way for anarchists to publish and distribute their writings. Under the Soviet Union, any literature deemed counterrevolutionary (in other words any literature that showed the communist leadership as anything other than saints) was typically censored. The heavy handed censorship of the Soviet Union gave rise to Samizdat.

Both zines and Samizdat material were self-published works. The author or one of their associates would create copies using whatever means available, usually photocopies or hidden printing presses, to create copies of their works. Those copies were then distributed by hand. Often the copies would circulate from person to person. Zines and Samizdat material were typically crude because they were created with no budget and without the benefit of sophisticated printing equipment. Neither usually circulated far. A handful of copies would usually be traded amongst a handful of like minded individuals.

Today’s modern world has analogs to zines and Samizdat. Self-hosted services such as Mastadon and Element allow like minded individuals to communicate with each other via services that they can control. Peer-to-peer services such as Retroshare allow each individual to completely control their own node. It’s also possible to self-host a website. This blog is hosted on a server in my basement. There are also old school methods such as private e-mail lists that allow anybody with an e-mail client to connect to an e-mail server being hosted by a like minded individual.

The most common criticism of these services is that not everybody is on them. While true, this is a feature, not a bug, for anybody interested in distributing ideas outside of the mainstream. Do you think your grandparents are going to enjoy or be convinced by your radical posts on Facebook? If you do, you’re a fool. The only result of posting your non-mainstream ideas to centralized services used by the masses is its removal because eventually Karen is going to see it, she is going to be offended by it, and she is going to report it. Shortly after she reports it, it will be removed because the service needs her (or more specifically the masses who think like her) more than you.