Censorship is a Potential Threat to the Sustainability of the Network

By Sarah Sorensen
August 13, 2009

In the recent Economist there is an article, "Iraq's freedoms under threat: Could a police state return?" that takes a look at some of the slippery slopes the country is traveling down that could affect the future freedoms of the Iraqi people. Among those threatened is the unfettered access to the power of the Internet; the Iraqi government announced they are going to censor imported books as well as the Internet to prevent "hate credos and pornography." Internet cafes are being forced to register users, taking away some of the protective anonymity that bloggers and e-mailers have used to make sure their opinions and voices are heard.

Now, these attempts to control access and content on the Internet is not unique to any one government or country. As I discuss in my book there are many countries around the world that see censoring the Internet as one of the "protective services" they can offer their constituents. China, Thailand, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, to name just a few, have been known to regularly block content that they deem dangerous and objectionable.

Even in the U.S., where we are fiercely protective of our individual freedoms, we have seen evidence of how easy it is to start going down the slippery slope. Given all the confusing information that is out and about on the topic of healthcare, it seems innocent enough for the current administration to ask people to send alerts to flag@whitehouse.gov when they see something online on healthcare reform "that seems fishy." However, when you think about it, this isn't too many steps removed from the efforts of other governments (a.k.a. Iran, China or Singapore) that identify and then try to stop information that they deem dangerous, inappropriate or not in the best interests of their citizens. Who decides what is okay? What is fishy - is it any opposing view? What will be done with the information? What is the recourse?

Now, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt that the request from the administration was not meant to deter free speech (based on the administration's earlier attempts to come up with ways to fight censorship; see Obama's call for stopping Internet censorship, which we can discuss in a later blog). The reality is there are consequences that can result from even a seemingly innocuous request such as this one. When governments start policing the content traversing the network, there is the risk it will chill and even stymy the open, free exchange of information that represents the transformative force of the network. The power of the network is that it levels the playing field and enables everyone to have a voice and a way to participate in the public dialogue.

We may not agree with all the views all the time, but the fact that someone has an unfettered way to say them actually benefits us all. Think about Iran - without the network, we would not have seen firsthand what transpired after the presidential election and we would not know what the individuals rioting on the street protesting the results were thinking. If it were up to the Iranian government, which tried desperately to stop any opposing information from getting out, we would never know the opposition's view.

Granted, I acknowedge lines need to be drawn to protect us from that which is truly harmful - for example, I applaud and want to make available every resource possible to those who are responsible for hunting down and stopping each and every child predator out there. But we have to be very careful about where we place the lines. We need a considerate debate on how far we want to go. Which personal freedoms should be protected at all cost? What are we willing to risk? These are not easy questions to tackle, particularly on a global scale. But the network is a global tool and its transformative power is based on its ability to freely connect people, resources and ideas. We need to protect the right for all to access it to make sure that it remains a platform that can sustain greater freedoms and opportunities that benefit us all.

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