August 02, 2007

Google Images Illegal? -- And the Price of Freedom

Greetings. Are perhaps millions of photos on Google Image Search, other search engines, and the associated, linked hosting Web sites to be made illegal?

That appears to be essentially the plan of some legislators here in California, who are pushing for a law making it illegal to display photos of young children on the Internet "without permission." Note that the idea isn't just to prohibit pornographic photos, or naked photos, but all photos of "toddlers" -- including fully clothed in completely public settings.

A quick survey of the Google Image Search database yielded over 600K hits simply for "toddler or toddlers" -- one can easily imagine the scope of similar photos to be found using other related keywords.

This new move toward photo restrictions is being driven by the same forces -- laudable but misguided and ineffective attempts to protect children -- that I discussed a few months ago in the context of mandated ID requirements for Web site access:

MySpace, Google, and the Path to Tyranny

In the current case, the outrage is over an admitted "pedophile" (currently living out of his car here in L.A.), who has no criminal record, is not a registered sex offender, and says he does not act upon his impulses in illegal ways. Municipalities are trying to find ways to ban him and make illegal his apparently favorite activity -- taking photos of children in public places and posting them on his Web site.

That this character is exceedingly creepy is undeniable. That he might be potentially dangerous is obviously not at all out of the question. But in fact, what's he's committing at this point is literally nothing more than "thought crime" in the purest sense of Orwell's 1984 -- and if the plan now is to try cage up everyone who ever thinks dangerous thoughts ... well, we're going to need a lot of space for the necessary concentration camps.

Similarly, trying to make it illicit to display such photos taken in public places is a potentially disastrous path. Do the proponents of such a course seriously believe that "nasty people" won't continue to trade any and all photos through underground channels? And when the first stage proves ineffective, what's the next step? Ban photos of public buildings? People's houses? Cars? Dogs?

Well, there goes the immensely valuable Google Maps images, Google Earth, and Google Street View down the toilet, not to mention their competition in these various technology spaces.

One wonders what the endgame is in the reasoning of the folks who propose such restrictions on information? We've already seen Homeland Security used as an excuse for blocking community access to data about dangerous sites within their midsts, and for harassing innocent people taking photos of bridges and tunnels. Such restrictive actions can easily lead to cover-ups and actual disasters. In a time when our physical infrastructure is crumbling for lack of funds (while hundreds of billions are being spent on Iraq and the "war on terror"), a serious rethinking of our priorities would seem to be in order. Would a bit more money spent on infrastructure instead of padding "terror war" contractors pockets have saved those lives lost on the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis yesterday? It's difficult not to ponder the question.

Homeland security arguments may seem a far cry from trying to ban photos of children. But the underlying principles are the same. I'll say this yet again for the umpteenth time. You cannot effectively censor the Internet. To be sure, not every datum of information should be on the Internet in the first place, but once it's out there, you can't take it back. And public places are by definition public. Trying to impose a special category of "public places whose images are not allowed on the Internet" is simply impractical and ineffective, and in the end also ridiculous and dangerous.

While I have indeed called for research and discussion in the areas of Search Engine Dispute Notifications, this approach is associated with my belief that the only "cure" for problematic information on the Internet is more information, not less.

New demands for Internet IDs (e.g., an "Internet Driver's License"), and the various calls for broad restrictions on photos and other data from public places, are being driven not only by fear, but also by political and other opportunism as well.

Unless we wish to see the Internet reduced to a pablum of the lowest common denominator, it is imperative that we stand up for key principles, even when that means sometimes having to align ourselves in certain respects with some of the least admirable members of society.

Such is the nature of standing up for freedom, not only in the 21st century, but throughout human history.


Posted by Lauren at August 2, 2007 12:26 PM | Permalink
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