Monday, May 29, 2006

Fear of Censorship

There is a big stink being made by Amnesty International and to some extent the BBC at the moment about censorship on the internet. Now I'm a big fan of Amnesty and I'd probably become a member again if they stopped chugging on the streets of Soho (I think chugging - charity mugging - people with clipboards on the street asking people to sign up to direct debit contributions to good causes - should be banned but that's another story...).

And indeed in this case I agree with them again. Governments locking up dissident bloggers and banning the public from accessing the BBC website and so on goes down as wrong in my book.

What bothers me though is that again and again we have this idea bandied about that censorship is - 100% FACT - wrong. Well I think excesive censorship which limits peoples' access to information or political discussion is wrong. But I also think downloading child pornography, violent pornography, incitements to murder or violence or footage of apparent crimes recorded explicitly for the purpose of selling the footage (be it happy slapping or rape), is wrong and should be banned. All of which makes me ... wait for it ... PRO-censorship! I'm just anti-unhelpful censorship and pro-helpful censorship. All this absolutism "censorship is wrong" malarky really annoys me.

The internet is the fastest and most effective means of international communication there has ever been. Couple this with the fact that we live in a world of monstrous economic imbalance and there's a problem. It's not enough to ban the production of images we would all find abhorent in our own country, we have to ban the downloading of them too. Otherwise a few desperate people in the third world, able to earn many years salary from just a few such images, will inevitably ultimately be tempted to produce them.

In fact it's much worse than that... I don't have any great up to date data but back in 1999 it was estimated that there were 170,000 pornographic websites, increasing by 300 a day, bringing in around $700 million per year. And many governments have very little control over what is being downloaded and by whom. At least off-the-shelf pornography is policed for offensive images. Not so the internet: "click here to confirm you are over 18". Mmmm. Maybe a little bit more censorship is a good thing. And the news that Saudi Arabia is censoring websites which criticise gulf governments...? Of course they are, the same way they censor books which criticise their regime. Why would we expect them to make an exception for material published on the internet. I agree their approach is an infringement of human rights but it's not a change of policy for them. It strikes me as odd to imagine Amnesty and co. ever thought the internet would suddenly be treated differently to other published media...

2 Comments:

Blogger Iceman said...

"It strikes me as odd to imagine Amnesty and co. ever thought the internet would suddenly be treated differently to other published media..."

Many people thought it would be too difficult for a government that allows private Internet use at all to censor it effectively - if you shut down a site, there could be a hundred more just like it still out there. Or a site that gets banned in one country could easily be recreated under another name, or could be set up in another country. I don't think anyone envisioned the lengths the Chinese government would go to - guards in Internet cafes and thousands of government employees that monitor chatrooms...

"But I also think downloading child pornography, violent pornography, incitements to murder or violence or footage of apparent crimes recorded explicitly for the purpose of selling the footage (be it happy slapping or rape), is wrong and should be banned."

Actually, most of those things would be legal in the US (except the child porn of course). For better or worse, we have a very strong tradition of almost absolute free speech. Specifically, many European countries have laws against hate speech against racial or religious groups, but we don't. Incitements of violence are even allowed unless they target specific individuals or unless there is an imminent danger of the violence being carried out (e.g. inciting an already angry mob).

I'm personally torn on this issue. Certainly if people incite violence they should be held accountable. But I'm reluctant to hand the government more power, since it can so easily be abused against legitimate dissent or political opposition. And plenty of religious wackos in the US want to not only get rid of pornography but also ban "obscene" art, sex scenes in movies, and portrayals of homosexuality.

12:48 am  
Blogger probably censored said...

china has gone to horrifying lengths to censor it's people and censor information from them. it's not just them though, most countries have blocks on key words here and there... they just aren't quite as excessive and pro-active as china
what scares me, is that people (or a large percentage anyway) in the u.s. don't believe (or want to) that we are blocked from information too. as much as i would love to say i agree with you on censoring child, i fear what will be censored next. the question is- shouldn't the parents be taking the role of picking what their kids can and can't look at. it's not an easy task, given how open and easy information is to get.... but give your children some boundaries and stick by them. take away the computer for a month.

6:47 pm  

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