June 05, 2011

Why Search Matters - and Fighting Internet Censorship with Technology

I've been talking about censorship and free speech quite a bit lately, especially in the context of link criminalization and government mandated censorship of search engine results (e.g. targeting Google and others) as envisioned by PROTECT IP legislation.

Censorship easily rises to the top of information-related civil rights concerns, since it impacts your ability to even realize how much information is being hidden from you in the first place. Remember "double-secret probation" from Animal House? Censorship is something like that, only with far more serious ramifications.

In response to my related comments in Blinded by the Light: The Internet Enemy Within and referenced articles, one of my regular readers took me to task for my assessment of censorship risks associated with PROTECT IP in particular.

His premise is that PROTECT IP is much like prohibitions against "yelling fire in a crowded theater" or actions taken against pornography involving children, and so is justifiable and reasonable legislation.

I'd actually been waiting for someone to bring up these examples. The former of course has been a traditional rationale for speech controls for many decades, the latter a convenient "hook" more recently for proposing all manner of restrictions on speech.

It's interesting though to note that both of these cases directly involve situations where human life and health is immediately at stake. If speech restrictions are to be tolerated under any circumstances, these are the sorts of situations that would come immediately to mind.

Yet all too often, we see that these are merely the jumping-off points for a vast array of other restrictions, built "brick by brick" through ever expanding rationales.

So we're now faced with a veritable explosion of cases where governments are attempting to impose censorship, especially on the Internet, as ever more common events are declared to be "censorship worthy" in one way or another.

In the U.S., the economic concerns of giant entertainment conglomerates would be elevated to the level of government mandated link and search engine censorship, by the PROTECT IP legislative thrust.

In Thailand, an American citizen has been arrested for a four-year-old link from his blog to a book critical of Thailand's king. In India, the government is moving to block Web sites that furnish child "sex selection" information. Both Thailand and India are rapidly moving toward expanded Internet censorship regimes, with what most observers would call "political" speech firmly in the crosshairs.

Europe may be even worse in some ways. In Spain, a push for a right to be forgotten would dictate the removal of search engine listings seemingly pretty much on demand, an inane concept that I discussed in some detail last March in Deleting History: Why Governments Demand Google Censor the Truth.

The list goes on and on.

Which brings us back to the U.S. and PROTECT IP. It's difficult see how -- if Congress succeeds in invoking search engine censorship to protect the profits of (for example) the Disney empire -- Congress could then say "no" to censorship for a broad range of other topics that most people would consider to be of more importance than money at the "Mouse House."

After all, Congress has tried in the past to impose broad Internet classification and censorship regimes on a "Think of the children!" basis before -- such as the Child Online Protection Act. With changing court compositions, there's every reason to assume that Congress will keep on trying to impose Internet speech restrictions. PROTECT IP is just the beginning.

The focus on government censorship of search engines is critical, because search engines have become the key tool for our access to -- and understanding of -- the ever growing enormity of information on the Internet.

If we can't find relevant information, if we don't even know that it exists, it might as well not exist in the first place as far as most of us would be concerned.

Back in January, author Malcolm Gladwell suggested that we really didn't need continuing improvements in search technology, seeming to imply that our current ability to access information is "good enough" for all purposes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Current search technology is indeed very good, but the vastly expanding volume of information on the Net, in some cases coming from sources not even dreamt of ten or twenty years ago, will always be in need of new and improved ways to look at Internet data, to process and rank it, and to make it available to searchers in the most useful possible forms. The high quality of today's search tech isn't a sign of search evolution's end, it is rather a harbinger of important, additional ways of looking at knowledge, methods that are in many cases yet to be.

So search engines are central and crucial -- and that's why governments around the world are now racing to try find ways to dictate how search engines operate, with a likely result being an expanding "black hole" of topics that will ultimately be declared verboten.

Search engines such as Google must obey the law. They can fight in court against government or private demands that they view to be over broad or otherwise inappropriate, but ultimately they must operate within national government rulings if they're going to stay in any given country.

A practical alternative of course is to withdraw certain services from the countries in question -- such as occurred (to Google's credit) with Google in China. But ultimately, countries that force such a state of affairs are usually damaging their own citizens, in the purported false guise of protecting them.

There may be other approaches that search engines can employ that will mollify some government concerns short of accepting censorship edicts.

But enough writing is on the wall already that we should be actively planning for means to help assure that overreaching government censorship plans -- aimed in particular at search engines -- will not be unopposed.

As I've suggested previously, I believe we should be actively considering how best to leverage the inherently distributed, international nature of the Internet to help assure that crucial knowledge cannot be effectively buried by any national government's link censorship edicts to major search engines or other major sites.

Would it be be possible for such a distributed "knowledge backup" infrastructure to be abused? Could information location data that is genuinely harmful by most standards find its way into such distributed repositories?

Yes. But we know that crooks and other evildoers of all stripes will always find ways to access "forbidden" information in one way or another.

PROTECT IP and its international ilk ultimately do not threaten the real bad guys, but rather set the stage for much broader restrictions on the knowledge accessible to law-abiding citizens.

It is access to information by honest persons -- who make up the vast majority of the world's population-- that is most at risk of being targeted by censorship in the long run -- collaterally at first, but later much more directly.

Government ordered censorship of links and search engines is the "hydrogen bomb" of government control over the Internet, and so of information and knowledge in general.

But unlike real nuclear weapons, the deployment of censorship as anti-knowledge armament will occur little by little -- first visible only as relatively small puffs of smoke, that only later will combine into enormous and encompassing mushroom clouds of control.

"Censor to protect the children."

"Censor to protect the profits."

"Censor to avoid criticism."

"Censor to bury whistleblowers."

"Censor to preserve the status quo."

"Censor to honor our glorious leaders."

"Censor to protect our Fatherland."

"Censor to honor Caesar."

"You can cage the singer, but not the song."
       -- Harry Belafonte (1988)


Posted by Lauren at June 5, 2011 06:51 PM | Permalink
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