Thursday, February 28, 2013

Internet Censorship: Some Basics

A student at a school in Canada was doing research for a paper on Internet censorship, and came across my name in connection with some work I had done in the area of Internet filtering in schools (see here and here), so he emailed me and asked if I would be willing to answer some questions.   I said "sure!" and so he sent me the four following questions. I thought my answers were sufficiently erudite (this is something I've done a lot of thinking about) that I'd post them here on my blog so that others could see them.
1) How would you explain what internet censorship is to someone unfamilliar with it?
Censorship is when a governmental or other authority blocks access to certain texts, images, information, music, or other medium for the purpose of controlling or limiting thought.  Internet censorship involves blocking the free flow of ideas and information over the Internet. Generally, censorship is done without the consent of those whose access is blocked (although there is such a thing as "self-censorship").
2) Does internet censorship take away from Amendment One of the US Constitution?
The US Supreme Court has defined what it refers to as "protected speech." Not all speech is protected speech; for example, US citizens do not have the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, and certain types of pornography (such as that involving minors) are deemed illegal in the US and are not protected (as agreed by the Supreme Court). Censorship of protected speech on the Internet would be a violation of the First Amendment (so-called "freedom of speech").

However, it is important to remember that some speech that is protected for adults (so-called "soft porn," for example) may be legally censored in schools.  In fact, the US Childhood Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires all schools and libraries in the US that accept certain federal money to block obscene or harmful materials (such as those advocating violence against children). Is this censorship? Not according to the US courts. CIPA has been held to be constitutional because the PURPOSE of the restriction is deemed to override the limited free speech rights of children, and also because the method of blocking (and the extent of blocking) is not set forth in the law (except minimally), so local communities can set their own specific standards.

Another class of information that can legally be blocked in the US is the transmission of illegal copies of copyrighted materials (under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act).  Some US citizens have been prosecuted or sued for downloading or uploading materials they do not own. US Courts have also said that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can limit the access of individuals with overly-heavy bandwidth usage, in order to supposedly protect the access of other customers of the ISP.  There is currently an attempt to pass a law in the US that would give ISPs broad latitude over what they could block, and also allow copyright owners to require ISPs to block the copyrighted content.  As always, advocates of blocking the materials do not view them as "protected speech," while those arguing against this law claim that it will inevitably violate the First Amendment.  Needless to say, because there is a ton of money at stake, the battle over this proposed law is pretty nasty.

3) In the past year, Canada has been tightening its grip on internet censorship, and is now taking aggressive measures. Can you see America taking similar actions?
I believe there will be a law in the US that will allow holders of copyright to force ISPs to block the illegal copying and transmission of those materials. Is law will address the fact that many illegal copies of materials originate from outside the US, and so it will include an international component. Certainly this blocking will be against the wishes of those who want to download/upload them. It certainly limits their freedom. A deeper issue is whether copyrights (or patents for that matter) are a good way of protecting intellectual products. The doctrine of "Fair Use" suggests that some copyrighted materials are legitimately copied (for purposes of education or satire, for example), and the rise of the "mash-up" culture also seriously pushes the limits of copyright.

Will the US become a nation in which freedom of speech is increasingly restricted (with that restriction being justified in all kinds of ways by those doing the restricting)?  Probably, although I believe the US population will not allow the First Amendment to be done away with for frivolous reasons. However, if Americans feel threatened (from outside the borders or within), there is no limit to what freedoms they might be willing to give up.

4) What would the world be like without censorship of the internet?
The answer to this question (which is an excellent one to think about, by the way) depends on what you think about basic human nature.  Are we at our core selfish and greedy: tribal animals programmed to kill anything that keeps us from reproducing (or that might help us reproduce if we do kill it).  Or are we essentially moral angels, spirits in a material world, with a deep and abiding commitment to protecting the entire world from harm?  If the first, then a lack of censorship would lead to a nasty and brutish world in which only the richest can survive in the long run. If the latter, a lack of censorship might bring about a lasting peace, as greater communication and familiarity allows more and more of us to express our peaceful nature.

Personally?  I believe that capitalism requires censorship of some kind, and so as long as we live in a world dominated by the flow of money to produce more money, there will be no end to censorship. Is there a workable alternative to capitalism as the engine of worldwide social and economic order?  Perhaps democracy, although the distance from where the world is today and where democracy might really come alive is very long. 

Note: for a video of a talk I recently gave on "Internet Filtering in Schools: What's at Stake" at a teacher workshop at the Art Institute of Chicago, see here.