Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Drawing a line in the sand

Australia continues to play with the idea of censoring the parts of the Internet its people can see:

Governments and organisations around the world are intently watching Australia as the Federal Government continues to peddle the proposed ISP-level Internet filter, former GetUp executive director and AccessNow founder, Brett Solomon, has revealed.

I don't know exactly how this will play out. It will be an ugly blow by blow as various parties wrest for influence over this new source of power.

The longer trend is clearer, however. There will be ever more ideas about what to filter, and only rarely will anything be taken off the list. Further, while it might initially take a large supermajority to get something on the list, eventually everyone will get used to the idea of a pervasive filter. At that point, more like a simple majority will suffice.

Whatever is being said now, there will be quite a lot of things people work to add to the filter list over time. Here are a few from the top of my head:

  • Distasteful content with no artistic merit.
  • Content felt to be harmful to children.
  • Activity of suspects in major crime.
  • Activity of people capable of committing a crime (i.e. everyone).
  • Motion of copyright-protected material such as Hollywood movies.
  • Activity deemed bad for society, such as gambling.
  • Below-quota viewing of material deemed good for society, such as acclaim for the wonders of one's own country.

There's an even worse problem than that the list tends to grow. As more and more people are needed to enforce these filters, the quality of the people involved will decline. When there are ten wire taps a year, and the court cases authorizing them are publicized, the public can scrutinize all the agents involved and hold them to a high standard. It's like the death penalty in U.S. states--every case is hyperanalyzed. However, once the filtering is routine and pervasive, it takes a small army of employees to implement it. It becomes more like the income tax service or the policy forces, where there are so many people involved that there are many bad apples.

This is a case where there's no good solution but to draw a line in the sand and stick to principles. Each extra step of filtering is okay and will have proponents saying it makes everyone better off. However, the end result is a relatively repressive regime, one where neighbors spy on each other and decide what is appropriate for each other to view. If you think that creativity, insight, and entrepreneurship are important for society, then this is an order where society is missing something vital.

The historical place we draw the line in the United States is that people have free speech. All citizens can say what they like, and other citizens can listen to whomever they like. It is not up to the government, much less to random neighbors, what material is fit for citizens to view. If I lived in Australia, I would fight for just that line. Speech over the Internet is still speech, and it should be sacrosanct.

HT James Robinson.

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