Monday, June 18, 2012

Speech vs. Censorship

Recently, Google released a report stating that it had received thousands of requests to remove content from their Google searches by various governments, including the US. Google reported that they have complied with some, but not all of these requests, but remarks that the requests are becoming more frequent, more politically-based, and more in line with censorship. In some cases, this removal is so that the searches are in accordance with the laws of that particular country (such as removing links to videos with Nazi references in Germany, because such references are banned). But in others, Google says, the requests are clearly politically motivated.

To date, Google has refused to comply with many of these requests, but not most of them. The question this raises is, how much control should governments have over internet content, and can they legally petition to have certain information censored.

The answer to the second question is clearly "yes", or at least has been interpreted that way by the government's of the world. The first question, though, is much more difficult to answer. It's worth looking at our own free speech rights as a reference to help answer this question.

We know that, as Americans, we enjoy relative freedom to speak our mind. While we can't do things that are blatantly dangerous (yelling "fire" in public) or defamatory (lying under oath; publishing falsehoods as fact), beyond that we have pretty free reign to say what we want. That means we can celebrate or criticize any person, product, organization, etc. and be fully within our rights. We can accuse the POTUS of anything under the sun, and get away with it (provided we are not, in the process, threatening them or inciting violence against them).

But with the internet, we have a new dimension to this. Sure, it's the 1st Amendment that allows me to write this blog and not be arrested for it. It's what allows anybody to say or do anything without having to worry about their freedom. But then one has to ask: what happens when you have a repository for all the information of the entire world? What happens to secrets? What do you do if something is classified as "need-to-know only"? There are clear boundaries to what people are allowed to know, sometimes for legal reasons, sometimes ethical, and sometimes for security and safety. Where is that line drawn, and how do we maintain it in a world where information is a few clicks away?

That's where "censorship" comes in. Countries like China are notorious for their strict censor of the internet. America has largely been seen as a free-thinking, free-information kind of place, but that's not entirely accurate either. After all, we have no idea what our government is doing at any given time. If we did, how would that affect us and our way of life? Undoubtedly, making all information about our country public would compromise security, and probably spark some protests and negative responses for the public. So, we are left not knowing.

I guess people shouldn't be surprised that America, along with many other countries, are petitioning sites like Google to limit search results. In a way, I think people should be happy about this. After all, it keeps certain information and sites unavailable, and there are certainly things on the internet that should be kept off-limits. What I think people need to do, though, is stop thinking in terms of "slippery slope" logic. Just because our government is asking Google to block access to certain sites does not mean they are going to continually get more extreme in their requests until they are censoring dissension. First of all, Google would surely not allow this to happen. And arguing that we have a "right to know" everything that our government does is a bit of a stretch too. Where does it say that we have the right to omniscience? It's not in the constitution, and I'm not sure I want to know everything that our government does. I like to know what Congress does, what the President does, and what the SCOTUS does, but that's about it.

So, having governments attempt to censor information, while questionable, is not inherently evil. In some ways, this is a good thing. While I don't agree with the censorship that other nations employ, the balance that America is attempting is admirable. The balance between freedom and censorship is difficult to find, but it is an important balance to make.

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