Friday, October 20, 2006

Many people are incensed by Internet Censorship

The sois-disant Great Firewall of China, for example, is designed to
prevent people within PRC accessing information from certain sites
via various search engines such as Google, based on various keywords
deemed to be subversive by the Chinese government. (Actually, the
mechanism is much simpler than that, but the effect is as described).

Of course, other countries, and many commercial organisations
implement mechanisms to limit users' access to various kinds of
information. Many of these are merely extensions of censorship
to New Media, that makes sure there is consistency- for example:

In Germany (and several other countries)
holocaust denial is illegal (even criminal) and just as much on the Net as
in other forms of media. Many search engines (such as Google) filter
such content for users from those countries. It is still possible for
users to obtain the information by masquerading as users from elsewhere,
just as one can buy censored books from foreign bookstores, and risk
shipping (or carrying) them back.

In the UK, what constitutes pornography is rather more strictly
controlled than in many countries (in Europe, but even the US for example)
and many Internet Service Providers implement filters that censor such

In most commercial organisations that use the Internet extensively,
staff are often prevented from misusing the network resource by limiting the
sites they can reach. This is largely no different than limiting the access
that telephones can be put to (e.g. think student lab phones not having
international access). Of course, some industries go further and log all use
(including all e-mail content and web access) and check for abuse. This might
be regarded by some as an invasion of privacy, but others would say that you
choose where you work.

So we must ask why this topic is such a hot button to press with many people.

I think there are three reasons:

Firstly, the Internet was not originally censored (much, if at all -
and I have been using it since 1981, so I have a fairly good idea of its
origins). Thus when it first appeared as a service in many parts of the
world, it could be used to access information that was previously difficult,
expensive or impossible to obtain. This international (or global) nature of
communications happened before national or international law could comprehend
the effects. This is still largely true. As an aside, we should note that it
is almost impossible to police the Internet by location perfectly.
Identifying server, content, and client by Internet address is insufficient.
Mechanisms such as anonymising, peer-to-peer, and encryption all undermine
any centralised attempts to impose control.

Secondly, anyone can provide information on the Internet. It removes
intermediaries (newspaper and other media magnates), and democratises the
information providing processes. Even powerful presences
such as the BBC or CNN are not providing as much information as the end user.
In some cases, the immediacy of this information makes it more valuable that
traditional sources. In other cases, the provenance and accuracy of the
information make it less valuable. It is not clear what the balance is, but it
is clear that censorship may be arbitrary, and remove more valuable information
than otherwise.

Thirdly, the Internet provides information about diversity just as
much as being a tool for uniformity or globalisation. Many Internet users form
their own communities (whether youth users such as MySpace or YouTube, or
language and culture based). Censorship threatens to lead to so-called
balkanisation of the Internet, where these groups are completely disjoint,
whereas today, they are simply ways to organise subsets of users and
interests, and do not represent actual boundaries.

In conclusion, many people are incensed by Internet Censorship. Technology is
not terribly effective at enforcing the arbitrary and local rules: our global
society needs to develop new social and legal processes to which we all have
input, so that the "baby luck" we have had in gaining the low cost advantages
the Internet brings is not thrown out with the "bathwater" via high-cost dodgy
and false content control mechanisms.

I would propose to start by refining two principles, those of
freedom of speech, and freedom from persecution.

Both of these principles are already subtly different depending whether
the means of expression is spoken or written (e.g. libel versus slander), and
indeed whether the spoken or written (heard or read) material was communicated
privately or publicly. What the Internet does is to introduce at least a 3rd
type of communications channel, which needs to be comprehended by its users
(recipients as much as transmitters). The Internet provides the ability to
distribute information at nearly zero cost to arbitrary (unforeseen) users.
[Aside: this is why Internet piracy is so attractive too].
Indeed, the receiver may have chosen to hunt and retrieve the information.
This is a very different world from the traditional channels of printed or
broadcast words, or even of private letters and telephone calls.

For writers, a refined version of the principle of "freedom of speech" should
include a middle ground in terms of consideration of audience, and in terms of
channel. A blog is nothing like a TV or Radio item or a newspaper article. Nor
is it directed like a letter. It has soem of the elements of a pub

For readers, what is retrieved on the net should be subject to a refined
version of the principle of "freedom from abuse or persecution". What was
written on a blog may well have been put there in a different culture, with a
different readership in mind. Sense of humour and cultural conventions vary
across the world, and normally, physical difference isolated receivers from
witnessing these differences. Downloading offensive material is a matter of
choice, and not of the authors' intent. Cartoons satirising Islam in poor taste in a dutch newspaper would not normally appear on the street in a village in Sudan.

Between these two refined principles, there still has to be room for
respect and negotiation, no different from the application of the principles
in the more traditional channels and media.

Of course, there are parts of the world when these principles are not
respected even in the traditional form. Nobody's perfect.

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