Monday, 28 June 2010

Censorship on the Internet

I've recently been asked about my opinion on censorship on the Internet. The case given to me was of Google's withdrawal from China.

There are many who say that the Internet should not be censored. And there are many who say it should be. Let me see if I understand both cases.

In favour of censorship: The Internet contains many things that are of questionable moral value. For example, there are sites which exhibit snuff porn, child porn, anti-christian rants, anti-islam rants, and so on. There is, which really ought to be taken offline. There are anarchist cookbooks and satanic sites. In short, the Internet is full of filth and immoral stuff that can corrupt people, especially young, impressionable people. There are many sites which promote political views which are not politically correct, e.g., pro-Nazi sites.

Against censorship: How do you decide on what to censor? By whose moral standards? Surely if you allow some points of view to be aired, you should allow all points of view to be shared? What about freedom of speech? The US constitution AND the South African constitution (which, by the way, is far more progressive than the US one) both guarantee freedom of speech. When you censor the Internet you're denying someone freedom of speech.

The pro-censorship response: firstly, there may be common moral grounds that we can all agree on, which we can use to decide whether or not a particular item should be placed online for public consumption or not. Secondly, what is so great about freedom of speech? I mean, if freedom of speech allows Nazis to post their views, Satanists to post their views, Anti-Islamists to post cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH), paedophiles to post pictures of child porn, etc., surely freedom of speech can be harmful?

The pro-freedom-of-speech response: Freedom of speech is what makes sociopolitical change possible. The darkest eras of humanity's existence were those in which freedom of speech was not permitted - the dark ages, for example. It was only with the enlightenment and the arrival of free speech that societies started to change. Without free speech, the USA would not exist, modern France would not exist, etc., because it was freedom of speech, to speak against their kings, that led them to revolution. The same applies to womens' suffrage, etc.

The pro-censorship response: some societal changes are indeed for the best, but some are not. So, for example, allowing Hitler freedom of speech caused World War II. If he had been censored, millions of people would not have died.

The pro-free-speech response: But who is to say what societal changes are for the best and which are not? For example, many right-wing Christians think that gay marriage, a societal change which is now upon us, is not for the best. Many such persons think that gay marriage is an abomination in the sight of the Lord. (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). This kind of point of view raises so many further questions. But the chief question is this: By what standard do you pro-censorship people plan to decide on where the limits are? The Christian standard? What is that? Which interpretation? Catholic? Protestant? Baptist? The Muslim standard? What is that? Which interpretation? Sunni? Shiite? Sufi? Are we to use literalist standards and take everything in scripture literally? I am sure many of my readers will say "yes". But how many of you practice child slavery (Exodus 21:7) or slavery (Leviticus 25:44-6)? How many of you stone your children to death for disobedience? (Prov. 23:13, Deuteronomy 21:18-21). There are hundreds of such examples of fierce punishments that we no longer carry out today.

The bottom line is this: We no longer, in the Western world at any rate, use the Bible as the yardstick of our morals. We have a new yardstick: the Bill of Human Rights. So the question of Internet censorship must come down to this:

a) Does the represented item infringe upon the rights of the person viewing it?
b) Is there adequate protection for people who accidentally stray upon something that may infringe upon their rights?
c) Does the item represented depict the infringement of rights, of children, women, or others?
d) Does the item represented encourage, advocate, or promote the violation of human rights?

I think the answer to Internet censorship can be satisfactorily dealt with by the above points. So, for example, paedophilia sites will be disallowed, because they represent the infringement on the rights of children. Snuff porn/ will be disallowed because it depicts violence (infringement on the right to bodily integrity) and does not adequately protect a stray person from reaching its offensive content. Nazi, racist, misogynist, etc., sites will be disallowed because they advocate violence or the infringement of human rights.

This leaves but one question. What about sites that insult religion? My answer, if I am to be consistent, is to ask: do people have the right to not be exposed to information which may threaten their point of view of how the world is? IE do people have the right to be ignorant of others' points of view? I think the answer is no. There is no human right to not be offended. And there is no human right to be ignorant. There is, however, a fine line to be trod between making a case against something, and deliberately setting out to insult or belittle it. But even so, we have no respect of the right to not be insulted. If we worried about people being insulted or offended, we'd not allow anything at all, because everything insults someone. Islam insults Christians (Surah 5:116, 5:73-75). Christians offend Jews. Atheists offend the lot of them. Communists offend Capitalists. Anarchists offend Monarchists. Meat-eaters offend vegans. SUV drivers offend Prius drivers. The list is endless.

The question must be one of physical threat and impingement. Does the represented item on Internet threaten a person physically? Well, let's look at things that are purportedly offensive. Paedophilia does threaten someone physically. Physically (ignoring psychologically for the moment), paedophilia threatens the bodily integrity of a child because the children do have to be actually abused in order to produce it. Snuff/rape/ sites: they also threaten or depict the violation of bodily integrity, or required the violation of bodily integrity in order for their web content to be manufactured. This is especially true of sites that contain actual depictions. So they are also things that should probably be disallowed.

What about adult porn? My answer is: are the performers there voluntarily or are they slaves? Did they volunteer to participate? Are they adults? If they volunteered to participate and they're adults, then they themselves surrendered their right to bodily integrity and dignity, and the fault is only their own. What about the person who profits from their self-sacrifice? Well, the actors themselves profit because they're paid to do it, as are the pimps who sell the imagery on Internet. So frankly, apart from the possibility of a child straying on to such a site, I see adult porn as a case of voluntary abandonment of one's rights. Furthermore, the same kind of abandonment occurs when one has private intercourse with another person: one's dignity and bodily integrity are infringed upon. Are we then to prosecute all married couples? No, that would be ridiculous. So, in conclusion, I can't see a problem with porn sites. As Larry Flynt says in "The People vs Larry Flynt" - Which is worse? Depictions of death, mutilation and horror (e.g. news reports on war), or depictions of pleasure and life?

Of course, we know the feminist argument: porn sites encourage and depict the violation of bodily integrity of women, and thus represent a violation of women's rights. I'm not so sure. Firstly, if we put aside Playboy for now (which only depicts women), porn sites that depict intercourse also depict naked men. Does this mean that such porn sites infringe on the rights of men, and encourage seeing men as sexual objects? If the feminists are to be consistent, they have to say yes, that porn sites featuring men (even if engaged in activities with a woman), do infringe on men's rights too. What about gay porn sites that do not depict women at all? Surely that infringes on men's rights? So the argument about vicarious rights infringements doesn't work. Let's return to the case of Playboy (and its ilk). These sites only depict women. Granted. But I must keep emphasising, the participants are voluntary. They are not sex slaves. So how are they being abused? Abuse and slavery only occurs when the person is involved by coercion. You could argue that porn stars are coerced by the allure of filthy lucre, but then CEOs of companies are also coerced by the allure of filthy lucre. So in as much as a porn star is a slave to the mighty dollar, and therefore a victim of capitalism, so are the executives at BP mere victims of coercion, mere slaves. Clearly that argument won't work either.

Again, this leaves us with sites about religion - those which depict it and all its archaic points of view, and those which criticise it. Granted, criticism of religious sites does cause religious believers some distress. But on the other hand, religious sites cause non-believers some distress, too, and even distress to believers. Why else would religion survive if it did not create distress? Does the Bible not harp on and on about sin? If this is not a mechanism for creating distress, and creating a need for the distress to be alleviated, what is it? The Bible creates distress in gay people when it calls them "abominations". The Bible creates distress in women when it says that it's OK for them to be used incestually, or turned into pillars of salt (Genesis 19:30-36), or murdered without justice (Judges 19:22-30: 22), or burnt as witches (Exodus 22:18), or told to keep quiet and keep the thoughts of their husbands foremost and accept submission (1 Peter 3:1-7). The Bible abounds with such vileness. Yet the religious are free to express their points of view online. So my view is this: if you want to censor people from offending the religious, please stop offending the irreligious first. (Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you).

The final question of censorship on the Internet is not so much a question of "harm to society", which is what the right-wing use as their rallying cry against anything that offends them, but whether humans have a right to not be offended or to be ignorant. I can't see that anyone has that right. It's impossible to police what may or may not be offensive. Everything, as I argued above, is offensive to someone. So everything should be banned. As for the right to be ignorant, I have argued elsewhere (below) that ignorance is how slavery is perpetuated, and that the only true liberation is education. Therefore there cannot be a right to ignorance, unless there is a right to be a slave, or for people to own slaves. That right was abolished over 100 years ago. This is not the 19th century, even if some people wish it were.

Things that all governments can do right now for the environment

There are a number of simple laws that the government could pass to help the environment, which, I believe, could be simply enacted.

1. Require that all plastic wrapping, disposable containers and packaging be replaced with waxed recycled paper/cardboard. E.g., cellophane/PVC-wrapped products could now go into an old-style waxed paper/newsprint wrap, and liquid cartons could be replaced by waxed cardboard (a bit like the cups one gets at takeaway places, but with a waxed surface, not with a plasticised surface).

The advantages: better for the environment in terms of biodegradability of waste, encourages planting more trees, encourages paper recycling, increases wax manufacturing and possibly beekeeping industries and further investment in apian disease control. This will create jobs.

The disadvantages: harms the petrochemical and moulded plastic industries. This will cost jobs.

2. Require that all buildings that do not have national monument status (i.e. buildings younger than 60 years), should be retrofitted with energy-saving devices:

a) black pipes on the roof to heat water, or solar heating panels
b) double glazing to keep out heat in summer and keep in warmth in winter
c) mandatory in-ceiling insulation using organic matter such as cotton, wool etc., rather than non-environment-friendly fibreglass
d) mandatory energy-saving bulbs. I mean LED, not fluorescent bulbs, because fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, a serious pollutant
e) mandatory motion/heat-sensing lights which turn on and off according to activity or the presence of a person only, so that when you leave a room it automatically turns off its lights
f) septic tank systems with natural gas piped into the building for cooking and heating purposes
g) require that waste be separated into organic, plastics, paper/cardboard, glass

Advantages: massive electrical savings and reduced carbon pollution, increase in energy-efficient technology industry creation, job creation

Disadvantages: retrofitting these devices will be costly for building owners and will meet resistance. Eskom - South Africa’s electricity supplier - has the right idea with their subsidising of solar panels.