Censorship, Commercialization, and the Sanitization of the Internet
by Amrita Anand
Internet etiquette has changed rapidly in the past decade, especially during the pandemic. My early childhood was filled with warnings not to give away personal information online and to avoid social media until I was of a certain age — rules I followed reluctantly that I now treat like a code. In the late 2000s — early 2010s, the Internet as I knew it was an expanse of kid-friendly websites with a variety of interactive materials like chatrooms, forums, and single-player games.
Social media has taken over these havens of childhood, but not as a way to connect with people virtually. It has instead become a mode of self-promotion, as one might spotlight a valued product. Discussions of privacy aside, the self-objectification caused by social media is also a result of the growing commercialization of the Internet, and the desire to market skills, products and figures alike.
E-commerce was a thing of the textbooks until my secondary school — platforms that are now essentially household names were in their nascent stages at the time. Official websites for common networks (for me, it was primarily Pogo, Disney, and Cartoon Network (CN)) offered more variety in their content promotion than they currently host. Gone are the days when “Chhota Bheem Ladoo Challenge” or “Roll №21 — Run Kris Run” were readily available for play — the discontinuation of Adobe Flash brought with it the end of a healthy selection of free online games.
My grievance isn’t only with the loss of these nostalgia-inducing games — there are other websites that run Flash-free games that are still accessible today (such as Friv or Agame.com, the former of which went through a layout overhaul some few years ago). Other frequented websites underwent major changes in the last decade. Barbie.com now automatically redirects to Mattel’s online shopping platform. Meanwhile, Disney has splintered into its major franchises, but its official website serves mainly to promote its current releases and services, such as Disney+ and Disneyland.
Ironically, corporations who target content and products towards children withhold the available infrastructure that would ensure their audience’s engagement with the franchise in favor of marketing and money-making. But, of course, websites are not the only place for finding entertainment anymore. Disney and several other developers have created apps with games for specific media, which are likely where the current generation of children has migrated.
However, as children shift to these new platforms, it is to find that socialization has changed as well. While games (either online or on apps) offer relatively similar levels of socialization as they used to, the forums and discussion boards of the Web of the 2000s have thinned down or evaporated entirely. Despite the limited “childproofing” of the Internet, it was easier to find spaces for children to meet online, with obvious and self-declared distinctions between kids’ and adults’ spaces. With the reduction of these spaces, children can only move into the next best (and most accessible) option that they have, and carve out a space for themselves there — that is, on various social media.
Recent changes in Internet infrastructure have increased the standards of hosting content across platforms. These standards have made social media — where most discussion has now migrated — less hospitable for both children and adults alike. While sanitizing the Internet of all child-inappropriate content is unreasonable, we must accept that children have entered the general social media presence and that they may encounter content that is deemed inappropriate. Censorship is a hot topic of discussion here, with measures being taken across host platforms (such as Apple’s guidelines) to even maintain social media at all.
The current censorship measures across several platforms are mostly a variation of blanket bans based on specific filters (as well as reporting measures) — the removal or concealment of content that is labeled “Not Safe For Work (or NSFW)” is a prime example. Algorithms may “flag” NSFW content (either tagged by a user or through the use of search terms / patterns), but often also end up catching posts that need not be censored at all.
Rather than make the place more “kid-friendly”, these bans make it difficult to actively avoid such content, and increase the chances of running into them by accident as people find ways to circumvent them — one way is the use of special characters for letters (which negatively impact people with reading difficulties, those unfamiliar with the language, or users of screen readers). Switching out phrases is an equally popular option — the words “kill” and “death” are often replaced by “unalive” to bypass censorship.
Tagging content is a way to mitigate the chances of encountering child-inappropriate content on a specific platform — YouTube, for example, lets channels decide whether their content is targeted towards children or not (though I would argue that ineffectiveness of this feature is rooted in the singular change of blocking comments on “kids’ channels” rather than regulating the content itself in any way). Additionally, increasing tiers of censorship during the creation of accounts on social media platforms would also delegate the consent aspect of consumption to the users themselves, and potentially urge them to learn more about censorship policies.
I find that voluntary tagging and customization of filters is the best option — that way, regardless of whether one is on the side of production or consumption, content can be consumed safely, considering this measure would also benefit in the live application of trigger warnings. User-oriented platforms who actively listen to feedback are more willing to experiment with these features than the largely-favored blanket bans — but why are these bans still so popular, when the issue does not lie with the availability of expertise to develop alternative features?
The answer, once again, lies in consumerism and commercialization: the corporations that currently dominate the Internet will pay for what returns more profit, and as long as there is no active proof that these features would guarantee higher returns, the old ones are there to stay.