What would you think if you searched the Internet after the Canadian federal budget is presented tomorrow and every article you could find about it was positive? How would you feel if you attempted to visit the blog of an outspoken critic and the site was suddenly gone?

More than 2000 years ago the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote about controlling and manipulating information. Politicians, military leaders and advertising agencies (to name just a few) have spent much of the time since refining their techniques. For example, during the cold war, nations such as the Soviet Union and East Germany used high-power transmitters to jam western radio and television broadcasts to prevent their citizens from watching and listening to them. At the same time, western countries used shortwave radio stations to broadcast programming specifically intended for the eastern audiences.

While radio frequency jamming continues in some parts of the world, the battle is now mostly online. Canadians can fairly expect to read all sorts of opinions on the budget but citizens of some other countries, notably China, aren’t so fortunate: Their government operates extensive filters in an ongoing attempt to suppress opposing viewpoints.

Other countries are more subtle. For example, at last report Australia was still moving forward with its “Clean Feed” project, which would require Australian Internet Service Providers to implement mandatory filtering. The filter was initially touted as a “cyber-safety” measure for homes with children. However, according to Electronic Frontiers Australia, “Recent comments by experts have revealed the existence of a second, secret black list that would apply even to homes that managed to opt out of the child-safe filtering scheme.”

The problem with all these schemes is who gets to decide what content is filtered and how the decision is made. Child pornography is universally unacceptable and proponents of filtering thus often use it as an example and a justification. Material such as hardcore pornography, information on how to make bombs and the words of those who propose policies such as genocide also have few public defenders. Then there’s nudity and violence. Some people find nudity offensive in itself, while others perceive the human body as beautiful. Some parents allow their young children to watch violent cartoons while others hope to never expose them to Elmer Fudd, the madman with the shotgun, or Wile E. Coyote and his nasty dynamite habit.

Government-imposed or Government-controlled Internet censorship is extremely dangerous. Once filters are implemented, politicians and bureaucrats will be under constant pressure by special interest groups to block additional content. Adding a Web site to the blacklist will always be a safer political decision than not adding it. Pornography will be first because very few people are willing to publically support it, followed shortly by any form of nudity. Religious groups will quickly organize and apply massive pressure to censor Web sites about abortion, contraception, homosexuality or that dare question the existence of God. You might disagree, and perhaps you personally might have the courage to stand fast against such groups. Now put the same decision into the hands of a group of people concerned about being re-elected and see how quickly the blacklist grows.

Of course once the filters are in place, there will be other uses for them. Fighting with terrorists? Block their Web sites to protect your citizens. Find complaints about the goings on in Gaza politically costly? Just flip the switch. Let there be no misunderstanding: These filters allow Governments to choose what we can and cannot read, to curb discussion and to silence dissent. And, no matter how noble the initial intent may be, they will be abused.

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 19 reads:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Whatever we think of the UN’s effectiveness today, the fact remains that, a few years after the end of the Second World War, a majority of the countries around the world saw fit to include this principle alongside other fundamental human rights. We must not allow short-sighted politicians to take this right away.

5 Responses to On Internet censorship

  1. Evolving Squid
    Jan 26, 2009

    >>The filter was initially touted as a cyber-safety
    >>measure for homes with children.

    Whenever you see a paragraph with something being touted as “safety for the children” or words to that effect, you can be absolutely certain the subject matter is a restriction of freedom that is otherwise totally unacceptable in a free and democratic society, and is totally unsupportable by logic and reason. The result is that people pushing it resort to the “appeal to emotion” fallacy by calling it “for the kids.”

    If filtering the net was a good thing, it would be easy to support without resorting to “for the children.”

  2. Carter Drake
    Jan 27, 2009

    Very few “for the children” initiatives are beneficial to the children, but this article sadly just scratches the surface on the issue of civil rights.

  3. Eric Jacksch
    Jan 27, 2009

    The article was on Internet Censorship.

  4. Self Governance is the best form of governance. Sexually related issues need to be handled on what is the current societies values. The most freedom is achieved by those who understand limits.

  5. Carter Drake
    Jan 29, 2009

    Fair point Eric 🙂 Are you guys looking for another writer?

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