Disagreeable Discourse Solves Problems

American Censorship Day was organized by a number of organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation to raise awareness of legislation that is being developed in the United States that would significantly change free discourse available via internet technologies.

And thus the image that covers the FrogBlog.biz header and that you are seeing in various places:

I certainly don’t like everything I see on the internet. I am at various times annoyed, disgusted, and angered. But it is important to remember when things that are distasteful leak through, this is also the technology that helped bring some of the most totalitarian regimes left on earth to their knees.

When free nations choose to censor what disgusts them, they are also providing cover to the regimes who chose to censor simple political discourse. For that reason alone any legislation that proposes to ‘fix’ the free wheeling style of the internet must be designed and passed with utmost care.

Freedom of speech is a delicate thing. John Adams and the Federalists passed the Sedition Act back in 1798 and the push and pull of speech and power has never stopped. Even Thomas Jefferson – supporter of the First Amendment’s right to free speech — used the act to prosecute opinions he did not like.

Freedom of Speech is taken as an absolute right by most in the United States, but the truth of the matter is more complicated than that.  There are limits with fuzzy boundaries. WikiLeaks being a good current example. Whether you agree with the site or not, it should run a bit of a chill down your spine that government accusations were enough to have financial lifelines cut worldwide without judicial due process. Oh, what the Nixon administration would have given to have such power over the New York Times back in the days of the Pentagon Papers.

How does this relate to business?

Much of the current legislation appears to be driven by commercial interests who are dealing with the very large problem of piracy.  In the quest for mechanisms that easily block sites that reportedly break copyright rules or deny internet access to individuals who are accused of sharing what they shouldn’t, we run the risk of creating an entire structure of heavy handed punishments that operate outside of judicial review.

The internet has made it easy to start and grow a business, locally and internationally. Easier than it has ever been in the history of the planet. This has meant wealth creation both here and abroad, raising standards of living and producing services that I for one love. To be honest, it has also involved the destruction of older ways of doing business. While the internet makes this feel like a new problem, it’s not. Just ask a textile worker from Alabama, an auto worker from Michigan, or a typesetter from Chicago.

The trick is figuring out ownership rights and commercial models that do not disrupt the free-flow of ideas and speech that the internet has enabled. (Imagine losing your internet access for something you linked to via Facebook if you want a real worst case scenario.) This is a teeter-totter moment for the internet – anyone who thinks it will be simple is kidding themselves.

What would I do if I couldn’t Google?

Censorship on the internet has the potential not only to stop words, but also ideas, business models and more. It is not perfect, but it is delicate. So efforts to ‘fix’ it need to be initiated with utmost care.

>>>>Update: Removed the temporary ‘censorship’ code from the post so the FrogBlog header is no longer covered.

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2 Responses to Disagreeable Discourse Solves Problems

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Fred, Great post. Like you, much of what I see on the Internet disgusts me. But what disgusts me even more is the idea of politicians – and our current crop of politicians in particular – deciding what kind of content is permissible. We need to starve the bureaucratic monster, not feed it.

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    > heavy handed punishments that operate outside of judicial review
    It’s a great reminder that we’re still figuring out the rules of the road, and the boundaries can shift under our feet.