Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Director of Ideas Jared Cohen recently offered up an extract from their book for UK newspaper The Guardian that was ominously entitled “Web censorship: the net is closing in.”
As promised by the title, the authors lay out a stark vision of how “censorship” will cause the open, free and global internet to crumble into national fiefdoms, greatly limiting consumer choice and essential human freedoms. There are, however, a number of problems with this narrative. First of all, it begins with an incorrect premise. The internet that we know today—or that we have ever known -- is not immune to the application of law, laws that are national in character and therefore applied by national courts and authorities. While the level of harmonization of national legislation has certainly increased greatly due to globalization and enhanced contact and coordination among states, we have not erased unique aspects of national legal systems, and we most certainly have not erased national cultural boundaries that define the identity of societies.
The underlying premise of the piece is that the internet is revolutionary in the sense that it has the capacity to operate globally. But “global” businesses have operated for a long time, and have fully understood the need to operate in a manner that respects the traditions, culture and laws of the particular countries in which they operate. The authors believe that barriers should not exist to what technology allows. But “barriers” are not all alike. There are important distinctions to be made that will determine the health and well-being of societies, and we must assiduously resist the deliberate conflation of any “restriction” as a form of censorship.
Indeed, Schmidt and Cohen reflect on this for a moment in the following passage:
“The majority of the world's internet users encounter some form of censorship – also known by the euphemism "filtering" – but what that actually looks like depends on a country's policies and its technological infrastructure. Not all or even most of that filtering is political censorship; progressive countries routinely block a modest number of sites, such as those featuring child pornography.”
But look what they have done here: They acknowledge that some restrictions perform valuable social purposes, yet they label them as “censorship” nonetheless. Deeming ANY restriction as a form of censorship allows them to define good public policy as one that poses no obstacles to what they like to call “permission-less innovation.”
But if any restriction is censorship, then censorship is not censorship—it is the application of moral choices based on the social contract. The authors take the human out of the equation, ironically because they believe that doing so will enhance the well-being of humanity. It seems to me that taking human choices and desires out of the equation is unlikely to yield benefits for humanity.
Whether we like it or not, not all societies will make the same decisions as we do. Individual choice is non-linear, messy and inefficient. And we will sometimes disagree with choices that are made by societies—even democratic ones. But we need to recognize that other societies may not make the same decisions that we would--some for bad reasons (suppressing political dissent), and some for understandable ones (preventing hate speech in societies that have been torn apart by racial, ethnic or religious violence). Guarding against censorship will require us to make distinctions among measures employed by states. And we must all be vigilant in resisting theories premised on technological determinism that are removed from human choices. As Jaron Lanier has so clearly articulated in “You are not a Gadget,” technology does not have wants. Information doesn’t want to be free, or to be expensive, because information itself has no volition. Schmidt and Cohen paint a picture of societal bliss and self-fulfillment if only we would get out of the way of technology and let “it” grow organically without man-made obstacles. But morality and law are man-made and not machine readable.
We must organize and advocate for an open and free internet. But let’s not make the mistake of defining openness and freedom as the non-application of laws. Effectively combating censorship will require diligence and dedication married with cultural sensitivity, and is poorly served by rhetoric which fails to make critical distinctions in judging the conduct of state actors. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner observed in his keynote address at the State of the Net conference in 2012: “We do not need to reinvent international human rights law, or our enduring principles, to account for the Internet. No deed is more evil -- or more noble -- when it is committed online rather than offline.”