I, Censor?

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-09-08

I, Censor?

There is an idea making the rounds on some blogs that I am in favor of censoring free speech on the Internet.

This is based on a misinterpretation of comments Ive made to the effect that a national firewall might someday be necessary to protect Americans from Internet crime.

While I do not believe commercial speech—cigarette commercials, for example—deserves the same protection as political, artistic or religious expression, I dont think that qualifies me as a censor.

Sweden, for example, does not allow television advertising to be directed at children because they believe its harmful to them.

I think that would be an excellent protection for our children (and parents) as well, but dont think it makes me a censor or Sweden a country that lacks free speech.

By the standards of most, perhaps all, European democracies, Americans take free speech to an extreme.

I am glad we do, but also accept that with freedom comes responsibility.

It wouldnt bother me if Howard Stern were to be jailed on indecency charges, and I am in favor keeping the "seven words" off radio and television.

However, if someone wants to stand up in a public square and use those words as part of political, religious or artistic expression, that should be allowed, even encouraged.

But, when someone in another country—beyond the reach of American laws—starts serving child pornography to American pedophiles, is it "censorship" to deny them electronic access to their customers?

If you think kiddie porn should be protected speech, I really have nothing to say to you.

I am not talking about someone arguing a political position with which I disagree, promoting a religion Im not a part of, or even posting artwork that I think stinks.

I am talking about criminals making money by exploiting children and encouraging pedophiles here in America to continue their illegal activities, but doing this from beyond the reach of our laws.

When we find these sites being hosted here in the United States, we have criminal penalties to impose. But what if the site is located in another country?

Some people have suggested we deny entry to these criminals when they try to come to the United States or have them arrested where they live and extradited for trial.

Both those alternatives are naïve in the extreme and presume the ability to actually find the criminals.

Once identified, wed stop these criminals from entering the United States (why would they want to?) or their local law enforcement would take our complaints seriously and make arrests.

If those methods would work, Id be all for them, but I cant imagine they would be terribly effective.

Yet, when I suggest that it might be worthwhile to have the ability to filter objectionable sites at our electronic borders, I am lumped in with the Chinese, who clearly filter political and religious speech to prop up their Communist dictatorship.

Regular readers of my column are well aware that I dont look at the Chinese governments intentions towards the United States as benignly as most of my peers.

If my critics were aware of a recent situation, in which I was erroneously led to believe that an American company was providing the Chinese with such filtering software, I think they would better understand my position.

Next Page: Going ballistic.

Going Ballistic

It is fair to say I went absolutely ballistic over what I believed was the United States selling censorship tools to the Chinese government.

I promptly wrote a column nuking the company involved, but held it because I considered the allegation I was making to be so bizarre.

Further investigation allowed the company to demonstrate as conclusively as I considered possible that they wanted nothing more than to give Chinese parents better control over what their children accessed online.

The column was appropriately rewritten and took a much more positive slant.

Click here to read more about columnist David Courseys thoughts on American companies helping China filter the Internet.

I am still watching this company, just in case, though I have no reason to suspect it of any wrongdoing.

I know there areas where good patriots (of all political stripes) may disagree, but I could never support censoring anyones right to speak out on political or religious issues.

I am concerned, for example, about people posting the directions for making WMD materials on the Internet and believe that violent video games and entertainment contribute in measurable ways to a violent society.

In these and similar cases, I am not opposed to some sort of regulation, which I understand some would call censorship.

Id rather people just acted responsibility and with concern for others, but if they dont, I think government should be ready to step in.

Its not clear to me that allowing prescription drugs to be advertised directly to patients has improved health care.

I think we were better off when such advertising was illegal. But is that really censorship or just good public policy?

If the American people, though their elected representatives, decide to regulate online gambling, I believe we should have the option of forcing the issue if offshore Web sites that dont want to play by our rules.

We dont have the use the option, but it should be available to us.

Likewise, we should have as much ability as possible to assure that electronic commerce is conducted within our laws.

There are a number of big sticks at our disposal, but the biggest would be shutting the offending commercial Internet traffic off at our borders.

I hope it would never come to this, but there will be criminals out there forcing the issue, and we should respond as we deem necessary.

Obviously, I am not someone who believes all speech should be completely unregulated. But most people are that way.

Weve agreed that yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, threatening to kill someone, or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States all cross the line.

There is also a distinction between the free speech that makes democracy possible and that which allows criminals and others to take advantage of us all. I dont think my views make me a censor. But you have the right to call me whatever you like.

Thats your right—its free speech.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at david_coursey@ziffdavis.com.

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