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Friday, 23 March 2012

Censorship and terrorism, relevant modern history

Yesterday morning I heard Vint Cerf, chief internet evangelist at Google and one of the recognised fathers of the internet, talk about the importance of open communications, trust and free speech.

He said there was a big question over how social norms such as acceptable speech would develop. Clearly people need to be discouraged from harassing others, but we must keep perspective as to the actual harm rather than the perceived harm.

He said one of his biggest fears for the internet was that we as a society would over-react and shut down the good stuff in the pursuit to cut out the bad.

He cited the battle against online piracy as an example, "piracy is not good, but breaking DNSSEC is worse."

Of course there's more to internet policy than piracy (as I keep saying). Vint explained how, generally, people who want to control the internet use examples of the very worst human behaviour to justify the need for controls.

Around four hours after Vint's speech I was passed an iPad from the delegate sat next to me.  There was a breaking news summary of Sarkozy's speech in the wake of the tragedy of the French shootings. He plans to jail visitors to websites glorifying terrorism.

A clear example of what Vint Cerf had described hours earlier. Holding up the very worst examples of human behaviour to justify controls over information.

It's not just France. In the UK there's still pressure from within government and parliament to criminalise the "glorification of terrorism", with a view to shut down or block any website which does.

On this I'm reminded of past attempts to use censorship to fight terrorism.  In 1988 the Thatcher government gagged 11 spokespeople from Northern Irish organisations engaged in terrorism.

Anyone alive at the time will no-doubt recall the nightly news bulletins with the words "due to reporting restrictions we are unable to bring you the words of Gerry Adams."

The situation quickly descended into farce, as actors or news readers repeated verbatim what one of the gagged spokespeople had said over the top of muted footage of that person at a rally or talking to camera.

The then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd now says he accepts that the ban soon became enormously counter-productive [ref].

Words don't kill people. It's as simple as that.

Yes, words may incite violence, but they also abate violence. The political situation in Northern Ireland wasn't improved through censorship, robust policing and imprisonment of terrorists (sometimes detained without charge).  It was improved through dialogue.

As autonomous individuals in a free society we are relatively robust against being told what to do.  Yes, websites can be used to whip-up hate, but they can also be used to engage with those disgruntled for whatever reason and show how collectively society stands against violence.

We need to learn how to encourage individuals at risk of becoming disgruntled to the degree they want to commit acts of violence out of the echochambers I'm told they inhabit and see the wider debate, not push these echochambers deep underground where participants would be even less likely to surface for air.

Criminalising information no matter how offensive can impact those who work on the fringes, the people sympathetic to a viewpoint but never to the point of violence.  Censorship also breeds fear and mistrust. We want to know what we're not allowed to know, it's just human nature.

We need to keep the dialogue open with all sections of society, and closing down information is no way to achieve this.

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