By James Wallace Harris – September 23, 2014
In America we take freedom for granted, and because of this we expect the Internet to be free and open. Internet visionaries like to think that everyone who joins the Internet shares their ideals. The potential of the Internet is to unite humanity and reduce the distance between 7.3 billion people to zero. We are all just a few keystrokes away from each other, and we can organize into groups not related by geographical boundaries. Over time this will erode the concept of nations and it’s a threat to all theologies and philosophies. Open access to all information is the universal solvent to narrative fallacy. Censorship on the Internet is a complex issue.
Sunday The New York Times published an extensive essay “China Clamps Down on Web, Pinching Companies Like Google.” Because China wants to control the flow of information its citizens sees, it has practically turned off Google, and is working to censor many other global Internet companies and services. Other countries do this too. Even in America, parents and schools censor the Internet. Each of these groups want to protect people from what they consider dangerous ideas. But what ideas are dangerous?
Ideas are dangerous when they threaten an individual or group. Their specific dangers are relative. I want the Internet to be as free and open as possible, but I am willing to accept limitations imposed on us by reality. The Internet is a commons open to all, but it might need some imposed rules and some suggested forms of etiquette and courtesies. It will probably take decades to hash these out.
Complete open information is a threat to all ideologies. Most people on Earth live by beliefs they feel are true, but most are not. To protect their narrative fallacy groups have to limit information consumption by their believers. The Internet is leading us toward a future where all ideologies will have their validity challenged by open access to all knowledge and facts. In other words, the Internet is having a homogenizing effect and various groups want to fight that. That’s one level of censorship.
We all believe in censoring the internet to a small degree. No one wants scammers, phishers, viruses and malware. No one wants criminals and terrorists using the Internet for evil. Nor do we want to see beheadings or child porn. And many of us are getting annoyed by the level of ads. Everyone wants their personal computer and the cloud computers they use to be safe from criminal activity, and to be protected from seeing the worst horrors of the world. That’s another kind of censorship.
In Europe, Google is being forced to erase references about people when they request it. That’s getting into a gray area. Some people want privacy and protection from libel, but other people would prefer Google not whitewash history either. There are editorial wars on Wikipedia by polarized groups who battle back and forth on particular entries hoping to present their version of the truth. At Amazon, authors and their friends will write glowing self-promoting reviews, while people with grudges against those writers will write one star reviews. This kind of control of information is not censorship, but something like what we see in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – whoever writes the narrative gets to make the truth.
A huge problem on the Internet, especially in anonymous comment sections, is declarations of hate. It has gotten so bad that many sites are now turning off their comment features. Is this censorship or policing hate crimes? We like to think we have absolute freedom of speech, and total freedom of the press, but we don’t. Political correctness is evolving to protect most citizens of the Earth, but not the enemies of civilization. There are actions, ideas, beliefs and people who embrace hate and chaos that we have to protect ourselves from. This begs the question: Should we allow anonymity on the net?
I think we can agree there are lines to be drawn, the trouble is almost every nation, citizen and group wants to draw the lines differently. The wonder of the Internet is it’s openness. It’s fantastic that every person on Earth can interact with any other person on Earth. China has a different vision of how to create a perfect society. So does The United States. The problems mentioned in The New York Times article that trouble me are those cases involving scientists and businessmen working around the world on collaborative projects. I would like to think all scientific journals are open to all. That’s how science succeeds. We really don’t want the scientific world of China, and the scientific world of North America, and the scientific world of the European Union.
Then we have various religious groups trying to control what is science and what is not, or what belongs in the classroom, and what doesn’t. We have to be protected from their ideological censorship. There is freedom of religion, but there is also freedom from religion. Should we censor individuals and groups that publish lies and deception? Who decides? How?
We have to assume we’re all living in the same reality. Any Balkanization of the Internet will create islands of delusions about reality. We need to make sure the Internet is as open as possible, but this might mean we need to negotiate agreements on some censorship and filters for the sake of that openness. Nations will have to hammer our firewall treaties that respect each other, but we should all promote the maximum openness possible. There is talk in different places around the world, of seceding from the Internet to creation national nets. Isn’t this like creating Amish communities?
Ultimately I think any political philosophy or religion must coexist with how reality actually works. Groups need to work out methods of coexisting with other groups. Nations, corporations and organized belief systems need to have their rights protected, but all users must be protected from ideological imperialism, or even rampant commercialism.
But I also think individuals need to hammer out Internet codes of conduct too. Society off the Internet is evolving concepts of political correctness for proper public behavior in the real world. I think such personal political correctness should exist in the cyber world as well. I’m horrified by what some men say to women they disagree with on the Internet. I’m horrified by what many people believe. But within the bounds of free speech and human rights, I need to accept that people have a wide spectrum of beliefs I don’t agree with. On the other hand, I think we all have the right to expect a certain level of civility.
We’ve reached an age where the human race is partially living in the hive mind of cyberspace, and it’s going to take some time to develop new laws, rules, etiquettes, proper behaviors, concepts of politeness, etc.