Walmart Syndrome: Why Americans Don’t Recognize Internet Censorship

If you ask the average net-savvy American about internet censorship, they’ll often reference the Epitome of Internet Censorship on our planet: The People’s Republic of China.  The PRC blocks so many sites, it’s freaky.  We all know how things like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube are blocked, but they often block benign sites, too (like my business’ website, for example).  This, of course, doesn’t stop the citizens of China: they simply break the law of the PRC and use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access the information they want.

It’s said that the CIA worked with the Falun Gong to create the first VPN, to subvert the Chinese authority and give Chinese citizens access to the Free Internet.  Or, at least, as free as it is in the USA.  The way a VPN works is fairly simple – it takes your computer’s IP address and signal and bounces it off a server in the USA, instead of a server near where you are, which gives you access to the internet based off of that American server.  The thing most people don’t realize is that American internet censorship is pretty profound, too; it just often goes unnoticed by Americans.

Around ten years ago, my father told me something I’ll never forget.  “The problem with people thinking that you can get anything you need at Walmart is that, eventually, you start to think that if something is not available at Walmart, you can’t get it.”  Fast-forward ten years, and this is exactly the way Americans view the World Wide Web.  The modern idea that “You can find anything on the internet” has led to the assumption that, if you can’t find something online, then you can’t find it anywhere.  This is a very dangerous assumption to make, and it strengthens the power of those who seek to control the Internet.

It’s not new news that sites like Google and Facebook guide individual users to what those conglomerates decide users “need to know” or, more importantly, “don’t need to know.”  That is to say that if you did identical search strings on different computers, Google will populate different results based in a variety of factors, including your search history.  There are a variety of add-ons that you can attach to your browser that will tell you exactly how many different sites track where you are at any given moment; your journeys through the online world are very literally being tracked by multiple different websites looking to control what you view on their websites.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  While the US government blocks certain content, outright (websites giving detailed explanations of how to enact terrorist campaigns, repositories of child pornography, etc.), Internet Service Providers (ISPs) block a variety of websites, too.  Now that American internet is controlled predominantly by media corporations – particularly Time Warner and Comcast – they have spent substantial resources limiting anything that can lower their bottom-line.  Anything that might infringe on a copyright is blocked.  But, it’s not blocked in a way where you will get an error message; for most American users, it simply disappears and is unsearchable.

What was once the Great Hope for the Free World in terms of informational exchange has been taken over and controlled by governments and corporations, just like…well…most things.  It’s gotten harder and harder to find a variety of information, and it’s only going to get harder from here.  The sad part about it is that most of you won’t even notice.

Leave a Reply