Tue Jun 10th, 2008 at 06:52:54 PM EST
In a news story today several ISP's have agreed with the Attorney General of New York to filter content which promotes child "pornography". This is the first time that ISP's have agreed to censorship not forced upon them by an authoritarian regime.
There has been much criticism, for example, of Google for agreeing to filter search results to conform to Chinese demands, but the actual blocking of traffic is handled by the government-controlled network providers. Google doesn't filter content, it only makes it harder to find. This new agreement is something else.
Until now the telecom companies have always maintained that they are "common carriers". They provide the road and what sort of vehicle you drive or where you are going is of no concern to them. This kept them away from some very ticklish political situations. There was supposed to be a complete separation between content and delivery.
There have been other disquieting developments as well. It has been revealed that the telecom companies have been cooperating with the government in supplying copies of all traffic through their networks without explicit court orders to do so and without specific claims of criminal activity that needed to be monitored. In the US this is a violation of the fourth amendment to the constitution which bars "unreasonable" searches. Wholesale spying on citizens going about their business is a sign of a police state, not a liberal democracy.
The ISP's are also breaking with the common carrier model as they attempt to discriminate on the basis of the type of traffic. Attempts are underway to throttle traffic which competes with services that can generate added revenue for them. So Verizon, for example, can make downloading video unpleasant while also offering a cable TV service (over the same wires) which is not subject to such restrictions. Other tactics include charging an extra fee for allowing traffic through without throttling.
Now I'm not supporting child pornography which is already a crime in most countries, but having the carriers perform a police function. Firstly, the determination of what pornography is, is in this case, left to some self-appointed body which creates a list of sites to be banned. If the sites are engaged in illegal activity than prosecution is called for, not filtering. The excuse may be that many of these sites are in places in the world where law enforcement is weak or uncooperative and thus filtering is the only recourse.
This is not a valid argument even though it is appealing. Suppose next week the government decides that information from some disfavored political group should be banned. This is not far-fetched, many countries shut down media outlets which disagree with the government's position. In fact I would say that more countries impose restrictions than the reverse. The US has also had a history of doing this. During the WWI period several leftwing publications were banned from the US mails, effectively putting them out of business or at least stifling their voices.
Then there is the definition of "pornography". When the issue comes before courts there is seldom a consensus. "I know it when I see it" is not an objective standard. Even if the preponderance of material on a site may fall into this category, this does not mean that every item is pornographic. The ban is being applied indiscriminately. The alternative is equally questionable. Is there going to be a formal censor who decides on an item by item case what is permitted? We know how arbitrary that has been. "Banned in Boston" was a sure way to promote a book in the early part of the 20th Century. James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence also were subject to arbitrary censorship.
The power of the internet is that it is the first time in history that the public at large has been able to enter into the political discussion. This presents a threat to the status quo and those in power have been seeking ways to limit this power ever since its reach has become apparent. What starts off as a socially reasonable aim can quickly morph into outright censorship. The US and several west European countries are already tracking their populations at a level never seen before in democratic states. Adding in a bit of censorship to protect "children" is like the proverbial camel's nose in the tent.
I don't like to leave criticisms without making an alternative suggestion. So what should be done to control internet-based child pornography? It seems that other countries have already solved this problem as the recent raids in a number of them demonstrated. Those suspected of participating in criminal activity can be monitored using well-established procedures including authorized wiretaps and the like. There is no need to create a censorship precedent for this crime. Will some people get away with it? Yes, but how many people are getting away with illegal drug use? No society can have 100% enforcement of its laws. The best that can be expected is that most people will be disinclined to engage in criminal activity and that this will keep the rate low enough that enforcement can catch the bulk of those still engaging in such activity.
Abrogating civil liberties in the name of security is never a good course of action if democracy is to be maintained.