Internet Freedom Under Siege

By Applelinks Contributing Editor Charles W. Moore

Two French anti-racism groups are suing the giant Internet portal Yahoo! Inc., which offers more than 1,000 Nazi memorabilia items for sale through its Web auction site. The litigants are attempting to convince a Paris court to force Yahoo! to filter the Nazi material so that French users would not be able to access the controversial pages.

Yahoo! maintains that this is impossible, and furthermore that there is no France on the Internet anyway. However, according to an Associated Press report, French Prosecutor Bernard Fos has asked the judge, Jean-Jacques Gomez, to fine Yahoo! for each day it allegedly breaks French law.

The portents here for free speech advocates, and for Internet freedom in general, are dismaying. In May, Judge Gomez ordered Yahoo to pay "damages" of more than $1,000 each to the two litigant groups, ruling that Yahoo had offended the country's "collective memory," and also ordered Yahoo! to find ways to block French users from its Nazi-related sites.

Gomez is expected to rule on the latest action in August. Yahoo! says it has already removed Nazi paraphernalia from its France-based site, Yahoo.fr, and added warnings to some pages with sensitive material, alerting French users that they risk breaking French law by viewing them, but if the French court rules that material it deems offensive must be blocked from access by French Internet users, the lid will have been torn from a Pandora's box of similar demands by anyone, anywhere, who considers particular Web content offensive.

As Yahoo!'s lawyers noted, blocking certain keywords, such as "Nazi," would abrogate free speech (which apparently doesn't enjoy much protection in France) and inhibit people from doing legitimate historical research.

"Imagine that we would decide to implement what's being asked of us," said Philippe Guillanton, Yahoo's chief executive in France, quoted by AP. "Tomorrow, a judge from any country could come to a Web publisher from any other country and ask them to pull down such and such because it's unacceptable in that country."

This trend must be nipped in the bud, and the proper response for Yahoo! would be to pull out of France, and thumb its corporate nose at any French court order that inhibits freedom of expression on the Web. Not to do so would be to virtually guarantee that this sort of censorship will snowball.

My point here is not that the sale of Nazi memorabilia isn't offensive. I find it somewhat so myself -- more the implied mentality of people fascinated by that sort of stuff, then the material itself. To be offended by Nazism is a mark of decency. However, attacking free speech and expression is a mark of philosophical naivete.

Unfortunately, these anti-freedom sentiments are not limited to France. A U.S. survey released last month by the New York-based First Amendment Center reveals that even in avowedly freedom-loving America, the civil freedom ethic is being eroded to an alarming degree. The poll found that:

• 37% of Americans polled couldn't name a single freedom guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment (freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances)

• 51% said the press in America has "too much freedom to do what it wants."

• 20% think the government should be allowed to approve what newspapers publish.

• 36% would support a law that banned "public remarks offensive to racial groups."

• 31% said a group should not be able to hold a rally if its cause is "offensive" to some in the community.

• 58% think the government should restrict sexually explicit Internet content.

The indication here is that roughly 40% of Americans have been gulled into thinking that politically correct statism is a good thing. What these earnest (and mostly well intended within their own impoverished philosophical understanding) would-be inquisitors fail to grasp is the objective truth that without the freedom to offend, freedoms of speech, and expression cease to exist.

A Web-published paper by Human Rights Watch entitled SILENCING THE NET: The Threat to Freedom of Expression On-line notes that:

"Because the Internet knows no national boundaries, on-line censorship laws, in addition to trampling on the free expression rights of a nation's own citizens, threaten to chill expression globally and to impede the development of the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) before it becomes a truly global phenomenon

"The Internet has the potential to be a tremendous force for development by providing quick and inexpensive information, by encouraging discussion rather than violence, and by empowering citizens, to cite but a few examples. But this potential can be realized only if it becomes a truly global effort. Policy makers must make every effort to ensure that internationally guaranteed rights to free expression are extended to on-line communication and call for the repeal of censorship legislation. Without such commitments, individuals face the danger of seeing their rights eroded by the very technologies they are embracing."

The question that must be addressed is whether the freedom to freely express one's opinions without fear of censorship or reprisal merits the cost of tolerating the expression of opinions that one finds objectionable. In my considered opinion, the freedom is worth the price, and the costs of censorship are far too high.

One of the most vital bulwarks of free society is free speech, and one surefire characteristic that signalizes totalitarianism is the suppression of free speech. I am a free speech absolutist in matters of expression of _opinion_, including opinion that some people, including me, may find objectionable or offensive, or even hateful. Everyone should have the freedom to voice any _opinion_ about anything or anybody (even about white, middle-aged, male journalists) without fear of penalty or reprisal from the thought-police.

It is seductively easy, especially in an era in which the notion of absolutes has become unfashionable, to fall prey to the unfounded notion that "freedoms" can be qualified to exclude things one disagrees with and/or finds offensive. That view may be emotionally and ideologically attractive, but qualified freedom is not freedom at all. You cannot set up qualifications on "freedom" without also setting up Star Chambers to arbitrarily decide what is "offensive" and what is not.

It is on this issue that, figuratively speaking, battle lines must be drawn, trenches dug, and barricades erected, because just as it is impossible to be "a little bit pregnant," speech is either free or it isn't. Before someone dredges up the old anti-free-speech saw about hollering "fire!" in a crowded theatre, let me emphasize that we are referring to free expression of opinion and ideas here, not criminal mischief or libel or slander which are adequately governed by criminal law -- not human rights or censorship codes.

Oh no! political correctness enthusiasts of both the political left and right protest in unison; freedom of speech should only be permitted so long as it is "responsible speech," and doesn’t hurt anyone's feelings or moral/religious sensibilities. Hogwash! I reply. If you restrict free speech, it is no longer free. Maybe true-believers on both the left and right are sincerely convinced that society will be better off if those who hold ideas and opinions they consider hurtful or hateful or immoral or dangerous are silenced, but even when masquerading as humanitarianism or moral virtue, tyranny is still tyranny. The key word here is "permitted," which begs the question of who does the permitting.

As Toronto Globe and Mail Assistant Editor Anthony Keller noted a while back: "The trouble with trying to shut down 'wrong' ideas is that people necessarily disagree about which ideas those are. That is precisely why liberal [in the classic sense] societies protect free speech: not because we are all in agreement, but because most of us disagree about many things most of the time."

If the political-correctness fascists get their way, we can safely assume it will be correct-thinking, "political cleansing" squads and activist judges with ideological axes to grind deciding what we can or cannot say on the Internet. These people fear public debate and demand homogenization of "acceptable" attitudes compatible with their emotional, utopian idealism. They are sanguinely prepared to sacrifice freedom at the altar of thought-control and their dysfunctional idea of egalitarianism.

In his book, "Kindly Inquisitors," Jonathan Rauch observes: “'we must all respect each other’s beliefs' is nowhere near as innocent as it sounds. If it is enshrined in policies or practises giving [specially protected] 'rights' to minority opinions, the damage it causes is immediate and severe.... When you pass laws requiring equal time for somebody’s excluded belief, you effectively make marginalization illegal. You say, 'in our society, a belief is respectable -- and will be taught and treated respectfully -- if the politically powerful say it is.'"

And that isn't freedom, it's exactly the sort of fascism the Nazis sought to impose.

"Without the freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist," Rauch maintains. Can it legitimately be called 'hate crime' to upset someone? People who are 'hurt by words' are morally entitled to nothing whatsoever by way of compensation.... The standard answer to people who say they are offended should be: 'Is there any casualty other than your feelings? Are you or others being threatened with violence or vandalism? No? Then it’s a shame your feelings are hurt but that’s too bad. You'll live.'" Jonathan Rauch, by the way, is Jewish and a self-identified homosexual.

Critical or even hateful words and ideas do not equal violence -- genuinely painful as it may feel to some. "The unhappy reality is that some people are always going to say gross and vicious things to hurt other people," says Rauch. "If they don’t destroy property or do violence, ignore them or criticize them. But do not set up an authority to punish them.

The Global Internet Liberty Campaign asserts the following principles (slightly edited for context):

• Internet filtering and blocking regimes restrict freedom of expression and limit access to information.

• These measures will prevent individuals from using the Internet to exchange information on topics that may be controversial or unpopular. They may enable the development of country profiles to facilitate a global/universal rating system desired by governments, block access to content on entire domains, block access to Internet content available at any domain or page which contains a specific key-word or character string in the URL, and over-ride self-rating labels provided by content creators and providers.

• Government mandated blocking and filtering of content is unreasonable because it does not consider the dynamic nature of the Internet. A website on the Internet that is deemed offensive or illegal today may contain harmless content tomorrow, but is likely to remain blocked in the future by the proposed blacklist model.

• The effectiveness of the proposed regime will be minimal. It is unlikely that the government blacklist will cover a substantial percentage of adult or offensive content, as there are millions of such locations on the Internet. Tunnelling and other technologies that are available make it relatively easy for informed users to access any website they wish despite the existence of a filter.

• The great appeal of the Internet is its openness. Efforts to restrict the free flow of information on the Internet, like efforts to restrict what may be said on a telephone, would place unreasonable burdens on well established principles of privacy and free speech.

The bureaucratic, do-gooder compulsion to command and control is deeply ingrained in certain elements of the human psyche -- "those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind," as conservative political commentator P.J. O'Rourke has described it.

These are matters on which concerned Internet users must make their voices heard, loudly. It is not beyond imagination that governments could ruin the Internet, either through censorship, by imposing unfair and unjust liabilities on Internet Service Providers, or through greedy taxation schemes.

The Internet is one of the few, perhaps the only, truly free and democratic mediums on the planet. However, freedom inevitably makes the forces of repression and tyranny nervous. Whether they march under the banner of human rights, political correctness, moral virtue, or whatever, these people want to be in control. They aren't always evil or ill-intentioned, but they are woefully and dangerously mistaken. They must not prevail.

APPENDIX A

INTERNET FREE SPEECH ADVOCACY GROUPS AND ORGANIZATIONS

Members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign
http://www.gilc.org

Electronic Frontier Foundation
http://www.eff.org

American Civil Liberties Union
http://www.aclu.org

Campaign Against Censorship of the Internet in Britain
http://www.liberty.org.uk/cacib/

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
http://www.cpsr.org

Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK)
http://www.cyber-rights.org

Electonic Frontiers Australia
http://www.efa.org.au

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org

Feminists Against Censorship
http://www.fiawol.demon.co.uk/FAC/

Internet Society
http://www.isoc.org/

Peacefire
http://www.peacefire.org

Internet Free Expression Alliance
http://www.ifea.net

Appendix B

INTERNET FREE SPEECH REPORTS AND STATEMENTS

HRW report, SILENCING THE NET: The Threat to Freedom of Expression On-line

ACLU report, Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning? How Rating and Blocking Proposals May Torch Free Speech on the Internet

Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK) Report, 'Who Watches the Watchmen: Internet Content Rating Systems, and Privatised Censorship

Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK) Report: "Who Watches the Watchmen: Part II - Accountability & Effective Self-Regulation in the Information Age,"

Free Speech Fettered

Charles W. Moore

Moore's Views & Reviews Homepage <--> Moore's Views & Reviews Archive

 

  

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