Friday, March 20, 2009

Freedom Of Speech Has A Cost

In our supposedly free society, just exactly how free are we? We profess to believe in freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of political and religious beliefs. In reality of course all of these freedoms have some restrictions, essentially because all liberty carries with it a responsibility and those who have difficulty with being responsible make it necessary to have those restrictions to protect both themselves and others.

For example we are free to hold whatever religious belief makes sense for us, but if that religious belief dictates that non believers must suffer or die then that is no longer acceptable to the community, and laws are imposed to prevent that belief being acted upon. It’s a simple and easy to understand example, and almost everyone accepts that as a sensible approach. But what about freedom of expression? That’s an area which can become much more complicated.

The explosive growth of the internet has created a revolution in free speech and freedom of expression which is unprecedented in human history, transcending national boundaries, and of course the boundaries of both good taste and common decency. As a phenomenon it is perhaps the powerful force for cultural and social change in the world, as well as for education and business. But it comes with a dark side; a world that begins with dodgy marketing scams, unregulated gambling and pornography, and extends to encompass pretty much every imaginable aspect of human behavior no matter how extreme.

It is these more extreme elements which have prompted efforts to impose censorship on the world wide web. No matter how firmly we might believe in the merits of free speech it’s very difficult to confront the reality of ten year old kids discovering necrophilia or bestiality without asking if the price of free speech is too high. It would seem reasonable to take steps to head off that kind of exposure of young children to material which is so extreme. And so we have the plan by the federal minister for communications Stephen Conroy to filter access to the internet for all Australians by compiling a blacklist of websites and blocking access to them. The only problem is it won’t work.

It has been reported that already the supposedly secret list has been leaked, and along with the catalog of depravity there are perfectly innocent websites which have apparently been caught up in the sweep. Senator Conroy has claimed that the leaked list is not in fact the official ACMA list, but even so it does highlight the real difficulties that arise in drawing up such a list. On the now disputed list, a dentist in Queensland, a business which provides tuckshop and canteen management services, a tour operator, a boarding kennel, and even Christian websites have apparently somehow been labeled as being so offensive they deserve to be made illegal. If such businesses were to be affected by the censorship plan, it would have serious consequences. Quite aside from interfering with these legitimate enterprises’ abilities to market their services on line, there is the more serious consideration that they are being defamed by virtue of being listed alongside child pornographers as a threat to society.

On top of that is the reality that no list of offensive websites will ever be complete because it is constantly changing and growing faster than anyone is likely to be able to keep track. No sooner than one site is blocked than its URL will be changed, possibly even shifted to a different country, and in any event a dozen more will spring up to take its place. At the same time there are also concerns that the whole process of attempting to filter the internet will actually slow down the network for everybody. It’s not practical, and while it will block access to a great many sites, it won’t and can’t stop them all. Worse, it will stop sites which are not a legitimate threat.

Ultimately, the benefits of freedom of expression far outweigh the risks, and attempting to impose a blunt form of censorship is not desirable for an open democratic society. However, given the legitimate concerns about addressing the most extreme material and the potential impact on children, it is an important debate, and one in which it is worthwhile attempting to find a more practical solution.

That might centre around negotiating an international agreement of minimum standards with reciprocal agreements for enforcement, making the internet world a bit more like the real world where you are free to break the law, but if you do you will caught and punished. Obtaining such an international agreement obviously carries some challenges, but if there is any jurisdiction which still insists on allowing truly dangerous material to be freely available it should be possible to simply block that whole country from being accessed by the rest of the world.

At least that way the boarding kennel in Maroochydore would still be able to advertise its services.

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