January 08, 2008

Woody Allen, Google, and Internet Censorship

Greetings. Yesterday I briefly discussed the government's inane plan in Australia for mandatory ISP blocking of material considered "inappropriate" for children, to be enforced on all home and school customers unless they opt-out with their ISP ("raise your hand if you want the filthy, disgusting porn feed!").

As I've previously suggested, if customers wish to voluntarily sign-up to use blocking software (which typically allows for some degree of customization), or subscribe to an Internet feed supposedly "sanitized" via a government purity list (doomed to be unsuccessful, but more on that later) that's a valid choice, but forcing subscribers to opt-out is a reversal of a basic freedom of speech principle and cannot be condoned.

I'm reminded of a scene in Woody Allen's 1971 film Bananas, where he's subjected to a very loud and embarrassing price check while attempting to nonchalantly buy an "adult" magazine (praise be to YouTube, here's the scene itself -- at least for now ...)

But beyond this aspect, the practical ramifications of such blocking are staggering, even apart from the fact that kids will be the very first to find the virtually infinite ways around such attempts at prohibition.

What would the government block? Photos? Movies? Texts? Hardcore porn? "Suggestive" material? And speaking of YouTube, will Australia attempt to block that entire site? There's plenty of "naughty" stuff on YouTube, with more pouring in all the time, much of it uncategorized in any way that would simplify the blocking process.

Or perhaps Australia will simply choose to place the entire operations of Google on their default block list. After all, search engines are a veritable cornucopia of "inappropriate" material that can be located with great ease. Google's cache will usually give access to the text portions of sites even if those sites are directly blocked to customers. And what of Google Images? Without even changing any settings from their defaults, Google Images can provide virtually endless photos and drawings (albeit somewhat small) that the Australian government would no doubt consider to be "inappropriate" or worse.

And this brings us to the crux of the matter. Google and other search engines cannot be reasonably expected to be the arbiters of such materials in furtherance of censorship, and even when they're pressured into bed with government censors as the cost of access, the associated blocking will be pitifully ineffective, while still managing to do significant collateral damage to personal freedoms and privacy principles of the most fundamental order.

In the long run, attempts to "effectively" forbid access to a set of Internet sites and/or to censor the contents of search engines, are likely to lead toward defining not those sites that are blocked, but rather a relatively small set of constrained sites that are the only ones permitted. In essence, all that is not explicitly authorized becomes forbidden.

This is not a recent phenomenon of course. Such control has been the dream of totalitarian regimes and rulers since the invention of the printing press, and earlier. In the modern age, even when veneered with privacy-invasive "opt-out" provisions, we're seeing the same old dark specter of government control combined with shameless pandering to the most emotional fears of the populace, with the technical realities of the situation purposely marginalized or completely ignored.

Luckily for us all, the Internet is a much more powerful tool for freedom of speech than the would-be dictators of decency can possibly realize. But the damage that can be done simply through attempts to choke the Net is still very real, and the risks of these efforts disrupting the delicate balance that keeps many societies free are omnipresent.

The resulting negative impacts for everyone could be far worse than embarrassment from buying a magazine, of that much we can be sure.


Posted by Lauren at January 8, 2008 12:49 PM | Permalink
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