May 15, 2011

Knowledge as Sacrilege: The Criminalizing of Links and Search Engines

"The slaves were killed, and the soldiers who killed them
were also slain, so that no unholy person should ever know
the exact location of the burial site."

-- The Mummy (1932)

In the classic 1932 film The Mummy, the character of Imhotep, portrayed by Boris Karloff, commits what is considered to be a terrible sacrilege, and is condemned to be mummified and buried alive. In an attempt to assure that his grave is never found, all of the slaves who conducted the burial were killed by soldiers, and those soldiers were themselves killed, despite the fact that none of them had in any way participated in Imhotep's supposedly blasphemous acts.

All except Imhotep were slaughtered not for actions taken, but for "forbidden" knowledge possessed.

In the Orwellian world of 1984 even "wrong thinking" was theoretically punishable as "thoughtcrime" -- but in the real world of the United States at least, punishable crimes are usually associated with specific acts intended to break the law. Mere knowledge, and in most cases even the dissemination of knowledge when a crime is not intended, are typically not punishable.

Some persons -- including various important and powerful politicians -- now appear to have forgotten, or are simply ignoring, these key principles of free speech.

While the reactions to my recent discussions regarding link criminalization and government-imposed search engine results censorship ("Free Speech Be Damned!": Congressional Bill Would Censor Search Engines and Censorship, Governments, and Flagellating Google [White Paper]) were overwhelmingly positive, I did receive a few responses that suggested significant confusion regarding the differences between knowledge and crime.

Quoting from one message that arrived a few days ago, from a book author upset that it was possible to find torrents containing his work:

"Most ring leaders and people at the center of organized crime are just
talkers. They're just moving their lips, but somehow the crime is
completed. Should all prosecution be treated as 'censoring' the lip
movers? Is Google much different from the other ring leaders?"

The implications of that statement and question are both incorrect and dangerous, in that they attempt to directly equate knowledge itself with the commission of crimes.

In the non-Internet world, despite occasional government attempts to exert broad censorship control over ideas, the very "high bar" appropriately set for any government intrusions on free speech in the U.S. have been quite clear.

It's illegal in most places to pimp prostitutes. But if someone casually asks if you know where they can find a call girl, you do indeed happen to know, and you then provide that information -- have you committed a crime?

Back in the days of phone phreaks, friends would occasionally ask me if I knew how to build a so-called "blue box" for making free long-distance calls. I was a student of the telephone networks. I knew how to build blue boxes and much more. Did I commit a crime if I simply told someone how to construct such a device?

In 1971, Abbie Hoffman published Steal This Book -- a veritable cookbook for illicit activities ranging from cheating AT&T to building pipe bombs. The book ended up on Best Seller lists. Was it criminal to publish that knowledge?

In all of these cases, and innumerable more that I could list, the answer is no.

Economically participating with a call-girl ring may be a crime. Actually using a blue box to commit toll fraud was clearly illegal. Detonating a pipe bomb could be a major offense.

But simply discussing these topics would virtually always appropriately fall under free speech protections, unless those discussions were part of an intent to make actual use of that knowledge in a criminal manner.

When we apply these concepts to Web links and search engine results, we move even further away from any possible automatic association with criminality, particularly in the latter case. Now we're normally not even talking about directly providing information that might be used in "illicit" ways, we're dealing with where information perhaps can be found.

With major search engines, their indices can include link references to billions of Web pages on every conceivable topic. It would be ludicrous in the extreme to suggest that search engine query results could somehow rise to the level of criminal intent and participation.

What's happening today is that various players, in government and assorted interest groups, are attempting to leverage Internet technology and the centrality of search engines such as Google, to try impose censorship regimes on the Web that they could not successfully impose in the "brick and mortar" world.

It is doubly ironic that the most visible of these efforts now are attempting to use intellectual property economics as the means to impose massive government censorship, rather than, say, national security concerns -- though perhaps this particular prioritization could be explained by "following the money" of political campaign contributions back to their sources.

As I've mentioned before, depending on the courts to block such egregious censorship attempts may be a risky proposition at best. Ultimately, it's up to Internet users themselves -- around the world -- to fully understand what is at stake in this battle, and how much they each individually, and all of us collectively, have to lose. As both history and current events teach us, ultimately the people, not governments alone, really do have the final say.

There are forces who desperately wish to use government censorship of links and search engines to impose their own version of eliminating "undesirable" knowledge -- just as brutally as was done to poor Imhotep.

In our case, however, we still have time to fight back. If we really do care about free speech on the Internet, we will not permit it to be buried in the desert of totalitarianism like a struggling mummy, its witnesses mangled by the spears of those who would restrict knowledge for their own distorted ends.

We must not allow censorship to become the Internet's tomb.


Posted by Lauren at May 15, 2011 12:29 PM | Permalink
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