September 26, 2012

Free Speech, the Internet, and a Very Big Lie

A dangerous and decidedly false meme has been floating around in media and elsewhere in recent days. It's actually not a new concept at all, but we're now seeing calculated efforts being deployed to leverage recent world events toward the achievement of an ancient and evil goal -- the control of public and private speech in their various guises and forms.

The catalyst for this newly energized push to muzzle the world is of course the vile anti-Islamic YouTube video, which I have discussed previously in YouTube Blocking the Anti-Islamic Video: Censorship or Responsible Stewardship? and elsewhere.

I will not here and now discuss this particular case in much more detail, except to note that trying to understand the reactions to this video, without a comprehensive understanding of the geopolitical and social history of the Mideast, is like attempting to figure out how a smartphone works by staring intently at its miniaturized circuit board components.

Of great concern are the comments and editorial opining now appearing, suggesting that the U.S. puts too much stake in "free speech" concepts, that we must be "tolerant" of other countries' sensibilities about speech restrictions, and that perhaps global censorship of unpopular concepts and ideas can be justified in the name of community good and world peace.

Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in these arguments is the assumption that censorship leads to happier, more peaceful populations, where conflicts that would otherwise occur will instead be tempered or eliminated by the unavailability of particular types of information and content.

Attempts to impose such controls on speech are now of global extent, and have massively accelerated with the evolution of the Internet.

Some countries ban what they consider to be "sacrilegious" materials in a religious context. Others ban Nazi imagery, or negative comments about the ruling government or monarchs. In some nations, violations of associated speech laws can result in decades-long prison sentences. Even here in the U.S., multiple legislative attempts have been made to try ban a wide variety of broadly defined content from the Net, on the grounds of it supposedly being "inappropriate" for children.

But the question that is hardly ever asked is fundamentally a simple one.

Ethical questions aside for the moment, does government-imposed censorship -- or government-inspired self-censorship -- actually have the "desired" results?

As a thought experiment, imagine that Google had acceded to demands that the anti-Islamic video be immediately blocked globally on YouTube, instead of taking what I believe was the appropriate course of instead only implementing highly targeted and narrow blocking.

Would global blocking have avoided the violence? Would the leaders calling for such blocking have then been satisfied?

The answer to both questions clearly appears to be no.

In fact, most of the violence in reaction to the video has been from persons who have not even seen it. Most don't even personally know anybody who has seen significant amounts of the actual video. Rather, they have "heard" about it -- second hand, third hand, characterizations, rumors, bits and pieces from other sources.

This is a clue to the Very Big Lie of censorship.

Censorship is not actually about preventing violence, or keeping people happy, or even improving the economy.

Censorship is essentially a *political* act. It is a mechanism of political control and political empowerment of existing leaders, not an effective mechanism for improving people's lives -- other than the lives of rulers and politicians themselves.

If YouTube had blocked the video in question globally, various leaders would have crowed that they had bullied Google into submission, but so long as the video existed anywhere, in any form, protests and violence would continue, with many of these leaders tacitly or even directly urging protesters on, fanning the flames of emotion.

For it is the very *existence* of information, not *access* to information per se, that is at the heart of censorship demands.

And in the age of the Internet, information has become much like energy itself. It can be hidden, changed in form, but information has become virtually indestructible. And like a chain reaction in a pit of uranium-235, the suppressed energy of information can explode across the Internet in a relative instant, impossible to control around the planet.

Demands to censor the Net, to somehow limit or marginalize free speech as some sort of American aberration, are ultimately doomed.

Censorship proponents dream of the days before the Net -- before television, radio, newspapers, and the printing press, when information could not be easily duplicated, transmitted, and widely disseminated.

When the printing press was invented, church leaders in particular were horrified. Much like politicians and leaders today, they knew that the technology could serve them well, but the last thing they wanted was such communications powers in the hands of the common folk.

The Internet of today has become the fulfillment of would-be censors worst nightmares. It provides the ability of virtual "nobodies" to reach vast audiences with unapproved ideas of all sorts, at any time, in all manner of ways -- written, audio, video.

Without the Internet, you would obviously not be reading these words, nor would you likely even be aware of my existence. Multiply this effect by millions -- that's the technological marvel that is a terror to those who would control information, communications, speech, and ideas themselves.

The U.S. has plenty of problems when it comes to its own handling of free speech. Related government hypocrisies are as old as the union, and largely independent of which political parties are ascendant at any given time.

But the Founding Fathers, fresh from the repression of monarchy, wrote words of genius when they created the First Amendment to the Constitution, and ensconced freedom of speech firmly into the fabric of their new nation. That their foresight, in a largely agrarian society, is even more valid and important today, in a time of instantaneous global communications within a highly technological milieu, is a wonder of the ages.

We must firmly reject the claims of persons who assert that there's too much free speech, that perhaps censorship isn't so bad, that the world at large must cower to the lowest common denominator of narrow minds and political expediencies.

They are wrong, and unless they're willing to cut themselves off from the Internet entirely -- and perhaps not even then -- the Net will ultimately foil their efforts to impose "dark ages" sensibilities onto our world of now.

We're all well into the 21st century -- not the 13th.

Get used to it -- or learn the lessons of history the very hard way indeed.


Posted by Lauren at September 26, 2012 01:43 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein