Beyond Prior Restraint: Censorship by Proxy and the New Digital Gatekeeping

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Project Censored is pleased to publish the first long-form article in our “Dispatches from Project Censored: On Media and Politics” column. Authored by Andy Lee Roth, avram anderson, and Mickey Huff, the piece draws heavily from a chapter they contributed to the forthcoming book, Censorship, Digital Media, and the Global Crackdown on Freedom of Expression, edited by Robin Andersen, Nolan Higdon, and Steve Macek (Peter Lang). In this inaugural long-form piece, the authors take a deep dive into censorship by proxy, how it operates in contemporary American media, and what it means for media consumers. As we continue to develop our “Dispatches” column, we will include additional long-form pieces that offer in-depth reporting on the state of American media and how it intersects with politics.

Please note: For reprints, please credit the piece as “adapted from the forthcoming Censorship, Digital Media, and the Global Crackdown on Freedom of Expression, edited by Robin Andersen, Nolan Higdon, and Steve Macek (Peter Lang).”

Defining “Censorship by Proxy”

Online restrictions—including content moderation, advertising blocklists, and enforcement of “community standards,”implemented by Big Tech platforms such as Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook—increasingly combine with government legislation to yield dangerous, but submerged threats to online freedom of information, not to mention the offline safety historically-oppressed or marginalized groups.

Censorship has typically been treated as a matter of government control, with emphases in the United States on the role of the First Amendment and a host of legal precedents that establish limits on “prior restraint” by government. However, the rise of digital-era media giants—including Alphabet (which owns Google and YouTube), Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), and Twitter—makes clear that media corporations now stand alongside government as commanding arbiters of legitimate discourse on public issues. “Google may not be a country, but it is a superpower,” Timothy Garton Ash wrote in Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. Though Google, Facebook, Twitter and other media entities lack the formal legal authority of sovereign nation-states, “their capacity to enable or limit freedom of information and expression is greater than that of most states.”

We explore these significant changes in the media landscape by developing the concept of censorship by proxy, which we define as restrictions on freedom of information 1) undertaken by private corporations, which 2) exceed the usual legal limits on governmental censorship, and 3) serve both corporate and government or third-party interests.

The Example of RT America

As an example of censorship by proxy, consider the demise of RT America, also known as Russia Today, which from 2010 until 2022 served as the US-based channel of the global, multilingual RT news network funded by the Russian government. On March 3, 2022, after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and amidst a popular wave of anti-Russian sentiment in the United States, RT America shut down. Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who hosted “On Contact” on RT America, wrote, “This was long the plan of the US government.”

But, in fact, it was not the US government that shut down RT America. Instead, DirectTV, Roku, Sling TV and Dish—all corporate entities—effectively censored RT America by deplatforming the channel: On March 1, 2022, DirecTV dropped RT America from its services; the following day, Roku did the same; and, on March 4, Sling TV and its parent company Dish removed RT America their platforms.

But Hedges’ analysis of the US government’s aims was not off-target. Well before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the US government had placed restrictions on RT America and journalists working for it. In November 2017, facing legal pressure from the US Department of Justice, RT America had registered as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Although RT America, Qatari-owned Al Jazeera, and several Chinese state media outlets have been required to register under FARA, the BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, and Canada’s CBC have not, leading some critics to suggest that the designation “has more to do with geopolitics than with journalism.”

An intelligence assessment spurred the Justice Department’s pressure to register RT under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. A now-declassified January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) concluded that “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” contributed to the Russian “influence campaign” to swing the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. According to the ICA—which combined analyses by the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA—RT America’s programing highlighted “criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties” and was an important “messaging tool” in the “Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US government and fuel political protest.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists criticized the Justice Department for forcing RT to register as a foreign agent, describing this as a “shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades” and “a bad idea” that empowered governments to decide “what constitutes journalism or propaganda.” Journalists at registered outlets stated that “the stigma attached with registering” compromised their ability “to carry out normal journalistic activities,” the CPJ reported subsequently.

The US government could have silenced RT America outright, but doing so would have prompted negative repercussions. An overt government decision to censor RT America would likely have generated not only widespread domestic criticism of the action as a violation of constitutionally-protected press freedoms, but also Russian blowback in the form of retaliation in kind against US-based news organizations operating in Russia.

Instead, the decisions of a handful of US-based media service providers achieved the same end without any of the domestic or international political costs. This case exemplifies the phenomenon we describe as censorship by proxy. Because censorship by proxy can occur wherever the interests and powers of global corporations and national governments intersect, it is an international phenomenon.

Returning to the case of RT America, note that, in addition to the groundwork laid by the Justice Department’s designation of the broadcaster and its journalists as registered “foreign agents,” the marked rise in anti-Russian public opinion following the Russian invasion of Ukraine also contributed to the news channel’s demise. DirectTV, Roku, Sling TV, and Dish each decided to drop RT America from their platforms in protest against the Russian invasion, and likely in response to public campaigns urging them to do so. The corporate deplatforming of RT America should be understood not only as a case of censorship by proxy, but also as a product of a “moral panic” in which the Russian news channel was cast as a “folk devil” and the media service providers that deplatformed it positioned themselves as defenders of established values.

Moral Panics Prompt Censorship by Proxy

Informed by pioneering studies in the sociology of deviance by Howard Becker, Stanley Cohen, and Stuart Hall, social scientists, media scholars use the term “moral panic” to describe social fears based on the belief that a stereotyped group or category of people threatens the values, safety, or interests of a community. These stereotypes often center on identities marginalized within the community or wider society, including, for example, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, nationality, religion, or class.

Despite the concept’s wording, moral panics are usually about politics as much as morality. This is especially so in contexts of social, political, or economic tension, when the manufacture of moral panic is useful because it can quickly and effectively produce social solidarity. Moral panics can rapidly convert outrage into political action. Notably, however, studies on a diverse range of moral panics, from the Salem witch trials in the 17th century to the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrate that political action in response to moral panics often serves to reinforce and expand the authority of groups already holding power.

Our analysis shows how practitioners of censorship by proxy often participate in the construction or amplification of moral panics to justify restrictions on freedom of information. Political leaders and Big Tech platforms alike champion online safety—often with paternalistic calls to protect women and children—in the name of “cleaning up” online spaces, but the measures they propose often serve to muzzle legitimate political dissent, further marginalize already vulnerable communities, and divide members of the public by pitting, for example, the safety of children against freedom of information.

How Censorship by Proxy Works: Content Moderation, Community Standards, and Advertising Blocklists

Online censorship has been made more palatable through rebranding as “content moderation” or enforcement of “community standards,” undertaken by corporations as much as government agencies. Content moderation often leads to innocent content being flagged as harmful or explicit, which leads to the silencing of marginalized voices. Here we focus especially on LGBTQ+ content, but, under the guise of countering “fake news,” censorship by proxy also restricts progressive independent news outlets that depend on major media platforms for content distribution, advertising revenue, and fundraising.

From Facebook to YouTube, the biggest social media platforms all engage in forms of content blocking that negatively impact LGBTQ people and communities. Due to a double-standard, the same algorithms that ban LGBTQ-themed hashtags and demonetize YouTube channels with LGBTQ content often permit or even promote homophobic and transphobic content. No overarching policy, much less any kind of government directive leads to these outcomes; instead, the marginalization or erasure of queer content online is a case of censorship by proxy that reflects—and reinforces—moral panic orchestrated by the religious right and embraced by many Republican politicians, as Katherine Stewart documented in The Power Worshippers.

Under the guise of addressing hate speech, Facebook has applied strict real-name policies that prevent transgender people from using their chosen names and identities, blocked advertising with LGBTQ content or themes, while instituting criteria for “protected” and “unprotected” categories that promote homophobic and transphobic content. To moderate “adult” content, Instagram has deplatformed users, banned hashtags, and shadow-banned posts and ads with LGBTQ content. In efforts to manage bullying or harassment based on users’ “physical or mental condition,” TikTok has implemented moderation guidelines that outlaw LGBTQ content.  Twitter has implemented bans on “sensitive media” terms that restrict efforts by LGBTQ people to reclaim and take pride in slurs, because content moderation processes often disregard the poster’s intent. In January 2021, a federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit against YouTube, filed by LGBT content creators, who claimed that the video sharing platform had violated their First Amendment rights by censoring their content and demonetizing their channels. US District Court Magistrate Virginia DeMarchi ruled that, as private entities, YouTube and its parent company, Google, were not bound by the First Amendment, a ruling that received nearly no news coverage.

Advertising Interests Drive Censorship by Proxy

In a new wrinkle on how advertising interests shape the production and distribution of online content, advertisers now use “blocklists” to avoid having their products associated with content that they believe might damage their brands’ reputations with target consumers. The advertising blocklists employed by many prominent corporations to promote “brand safety” now employ artificial intelligence technology to scan for as many as 7,000 different words and phrases.

A 2019 study by CHEQ, a cybersecurity business, found that “more than half (57%) of neutral or positive stories on major news sites are being incorrectly flagged as unsafe for advertising.” The impact of blocklists was most pronounced on LGBTQ-focused news outlets: 73 percent of the safe content in The Advocate and PinkNews was inappropriately flagged as unsafe for advertising, CHEQ found. The editor of PinkNews, Benjamin Cohen, told CHEQ that a lot of content gets blocked “for no legitimate reason.” Ad networks are “blocking content for the word ‘lesbian’ because they lazily think lesbian equals porn,” Cohen explained.

Deprived of precious advertising revenue, LGBTQ+ media outlets become even more vulnerable to cuts, layoffs, and closures. Brand safety based on blocking keywords is “hurting minority voices, such as LGBT communities,” CHEQ concluded. Jerry Daykin, an ad exec and LGBTQ+ advocate, put it even more starkly, telling CHEQ, without more careful consideration of how advertising blocklists work, “We’ll continue to see minority voices squeezed out of media.”


To clarify the potential scope of censorship by proxy, consider the EARN IT Act, introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) in early 2022. The bill proposes to establish a national commission to “develop best practices for interactive computer services providers (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) to prevent, reduce, and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children,” and also limits “the liability protections of interactive computer service providers with respect to claims alleging violations of child sexual exploitation laws.” The EARN IT Act would severely weaken Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which gives immunity from prosecution to electronic service providers for most user-posted content, a provision the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) cites as “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

The 2022 EARN IT Act revived a 2020 version of the legislation, which lawmakers had dropped after it was strongly opposed by a number of organizations that promote press freedoms and digital rights, including EFF, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Article 19, and Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. Both versions of the EARN IT Act build on a 2018 federal law known as FOSTA-SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). FOSTA-CESTA established an exception to Section 230, making online platforms legally liable for third-party content that promotes sex trafficking. As numerous critics have noted, FOSTA-SESTA has chilled online speech and restricted privacy rights in ways that disproportionately harm LGBTQ+ people, sex workers, and others who depend on internet privacy. FOSTA-SESTA led to the closure of Craigslist personals, the gutting of Tumblr after it banned all “adult” content, and new restrictions on Instagram, consequences that only begin to foreshadow the potential impacts of the 2022 EARN IT Act.

While affirming the importance of curbing “the scourge of child exploitation online,” in February 2022, Article 19 and 48 additional organizations— including the American Civil Liberties Union, the EFF, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and PEN America—sent an open letter to the US Senate, opposing the EARN IT Act on the grounds that it “will actually make it harder for law enforcement to protect children. It will also result in online censorship that will disproportionately impact marginalized communities and will jeopardize access to encrypted services.”

Opponents of the EARN IT Act foresee a dramatic expansion of liability under state laws if the EARN IT Act revokes the protections afforded service providers by Section 230, a watershed change that would lead service providers to engage in overbroad censorship of online speech. As Article 19’s open letter to the US Senate noted, these chilling effects would especially restrict “content created by diverse communities, including LGBTQ individuals, whose posts are disproportionately labeled erroneously as sexually explicit.”

Critics of the EARN IT Act also decry it as a Trojan horse effort to erode end-to-end encryption, which helps internet users—including journalists, activists, and members of marginalized communities—keep their online data and communications private and secure. Online services would be likely to stop using end-to-end encryption because it is also considered a “red flag” for law enforcement officials investigating online child sex-abuse materials (CSAM). Although end-to-end encryption protects the freedom of expression and privacy of all internet users, it is especially important for members of LGBTQ+ communities. As LGBT Tech and the Internet Society have noted, strong encryption provides privacy for LGBTQ+ people while coming out and connecting, and it empowers transgender people “to safely use the Internet to find doctors and treatment during transitions.”

Outside the United States, other nations have enacted or are pursuing similar laws. In January 2022, Australia enacted its Online Safety Act. According to the government, the law strengthens previous cyberbullying protections for children and adults and authorizes the nation’s eSafety Commissioner to “get the ‘worst of the worst’ content removed no matter where it’s hosted.” In March 2022, the Australian news site Junkee reported that the law’s “overly broad take-down powers” are threatening queer online spaces and “silencing LGBTIQ culture.” Comparable legislation, the Online Safety Bill, is under review in the United Kingdom, and subject to similar criticisms.

Online Restrictions and Offline Repercussions

Some worst-case consequences of what US legislation such as the EARN IT might lead to can be appreciated by reviewing the chilling effects of Russia’s 2013 “gay propaganda law.”

In 2011, Russia established a federal law that restricted the distribution of “harmful” material among minors, including information that depicted violence, illegal activities, substance abuse, self-harm, or that might “elicit fear, horror, or panic in children.” After subsequent revisions to the law, in 2012 and 2013, legislation first enacted as a content rating system morphed into a sweeping law that criminalizes “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” as a class of harmful content. As the Guardian reported at the time, the 2013 law “stigmatizes gay people and bans giving children any information about homosexuality.” In 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report that analyzed Russia’s 2013 “gay propaganda” law as “a classic example of political homophobia,” which “targets vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for political gain.” Based on in-depth interviews with sexual and gender minority youth and mental health providers and social workers in Russia, HRW found that the law not only limits sexuality education, but also has been used to shut down online information and mental health referrals for youth, exacerbated hostility toward LGBT people, and had a chilling effect on mental health professionals and others who work with LGBT youth.

Although there has been global protest against Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies, especially during the leadups to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the Russian-hosted 2018 World Cup, much less attention has been focused on the role of the religious right in the United States in creating Russia’s anti-gay movement. As Mother Jones reported in February 2014, Russians have “adopted the kind of language the American religious right has long deployed to fight acceptance of homosexuality”—including terms such as “natural family,” “traditional values,” and “protecting children.”

This was the result, Mother Jones reported, of the direct influence of the Illinois-based World Congress of Families, an umbrella organization for many of the most influential religious right groups in the US. “The rise of anti-gay laws in Russia has mirrored, almost perfectly, the rise of WCF’s work in the country,” Mother Jones reported in 2014. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the WCF as a designated hate group, based on its anti-LGBTQ ideology:

Though its origins are in the American Christian Right, the WCF has built a web of influence in different countries, providing a point of networking for global anti-LGBT forces… Its legacy includes the mainstreaming of the so-called “natural family” doctrine, one that has been used to curtail LGBT and reproductive rights across the world.

The channels of influence between anti-LBGTQ interests in the United States and Russia run in both directions. As Mother Jones reported in 2014, “elements of the US religious right have come to see Russia as a redoubt in a global battle against homosexuality.”

Inspired though it may by the Russian model, the crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights in the United States has developed through different channels. In Russia, the national government has spearheaded the crackdown; in the United States, media giants and state governments, spurred by anti-LGBT groups such as Project Blitz, have acted in concert to provide the one-two punch necessary to create what even establishment news outlets have reported as an “unprecedented” wave and “historic tally” of anti-LGBTQ legislation, as monitored by Blitz Watch. These dynamics exemplify a more complex and subtle variation of censorship by proxy.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott ordered the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to consider gender-affirming care for transgender adolescents child abuse; in Florida, Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, which bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade classrooms and requires any instruction on those topics to be age-appropriate and in accordance with state standards. Across the United States, educational gag orders—including 15 legislative bills in nine states and “sweeping book bans”—target speech about LGBTQ+ identities, PEN America reported in February 2022.

These legislative efforts dovetail with restrictions on LGBTQ+ content online, including content moderation, community standards, and advertising blocklists administered by corporate platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, as described in earlier sections of this article. From online content restrictions to offline curriculum regulations and other forms of exclusionary legislation, the United States is at risk of rivaling Russia in silencing LGBTQ+ voices and marginalizing LGBTQ+ identities.

Three Strategies to Counter Censorship by Proxy

The ability to censor is not limited to government agencies. Instead, corporate entities—including especially media giants such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—exert profound influence on our channels of communication, controlling what members of the public are most likely to see—and what content and perspectives those audiences are unlikely to ever to come across, unless they actively seek them out.

In the hope of spurring engagement with these concerns, we conclude with a brief overview of three possible remedies to online censorship by proxy.

First, Design from the Margins (DFM) offers one promising approach for developing technology, apps, and online platforms that protect historically oppressed or marginalized groups. Developed by Afsaneh Rigot, a researcher affiliated with Article 19 and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, DFM originated from an effort to counter what Rigot has described as the “weaponization of social media, messenger, and dating apps.” By contrast, when technology is designed from the onset with the vulnerabilities of oppressed and marginalized users in mind, all users benefit from greater security. Rigot’s research has already led to significant improvements in the design of dating apps used by LGBTQ+ people in countries where authorities and non-state actors regularly target members of LGBTQ+ communities.

Second, we ought to think creatively about how DFM principles might apply to media more broadly. There are promising overlaps between DFM and a number of the guidelines for ethical journalism advocated by the Society of Professional Journalists. Under the basic guideline, “Seek Truth and Report It,” for example, the SPJ includes guidance to avoid stereotypes, to label advocacy as such, and to support “the open and civil exchange of views,” even when those views might be deemed “repugnant” by some. A full discussion of the crossover between these principles of ethical journalism and a Design from the Margins approach goes beyond the scope of this concluding discussion. But, for now, we note that content moderation, community standards, and advertising guidelines, would likely look rather different in the future than they do now, if DFM principles served as foundations, rather than afterthoughts. Similarly, strong encryption—imperiled by legislation such as the EARN IT Act—protects vulnerable groups subject to systemic discrimination.

US policy decisions will affect not only US users but also set precedents around the world. Those concerned with opposing global crackdowns on freedom of information and expression should lend their support to efforts to preserve end-to-end encryption online.

Third and finally, critical media literacy—as championed by organizations such as Project Censored, the Critical Media Project, and the Propwatch Project, to name only a few—can help to raise public awareness about the extent of censorship by proxy, and to defuse the power of moral panics. Censorship is most powerful when it is invisible; moral panic is most inflammatory when heightened anxieties make it easier to draw conclusions that might be counter to logic. Informed by the basic principles of critical media literacy, members of the public are more likely to recognize censorship by proxy and less likely to be irrationally swayed by moral panic.

Andy Lee Roth is a sociologist and associate director of Project Censored. He is coeditor, with Mickey Huff, of Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2023, and a member of the Media Revolution Collective that wrote The Media and Me: A Guide to Critical Media LIteracy for Young People.

avram anderson is an electronic resources management specialist at California State University, Northridge, and a member and advocate of the LGBTQI+ community researching LGBTQI+ censorship, in print and online. In addition to coauthoring The Media and Me, they also serve on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Committee at the National Information Standards Organization (NISO).

Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored, coeditor of the Censored yearbook series, and coauthor of United States of Distraction, Let’s Agree to Disagree, and The Media and Me. Huff teaches social science, history, and journalism at Diablo Valley College, and serves as executive producer and cohost of The Project Censored Show, the Project’s nationally syndicated public affairs program.