Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Via Arts and Letters Daily is an informative, but misleading article by Harry Lewis on Internet censorship called, "Not Your Father's Censorship".
Unfortunately, Lewis ends his article by making not just your father's, but your father's father's equivocation between political power (i.e., the use of force by the government) and economic power (i.e., corporate market share, which is a gross measure of the voluntary, uncoerced decisions of large numbers of customers):
The Internet is, for the most part, privately owned. So is the publishing business, where the free market has always worked. If a publisher doesn't want my book, I can take my business elsewhere, but I can't cry censorship. We wouldn't want government regulation of book publishers, and we don't need it. Is the Internet any different?The monopolist element of the above argument will sound all too familiar to anyone who knows the story of the rise of Standard Oil, which Alex Epstein did a fantastic job of setting straight in The Objective Standard not too long ago.
The Internet is different from publishing, in fact if not in theory. Were one publisher as dominant as Google or YouTube, its corporate judgments might have a very big impact on the free flow of ideas. And the DMCA protocol presents opportunities for the powerful to suppress speech by spurious invocation of copyright law. In the United States, the Internet is still the "most participatory form of mass speech yet developed," as a federal judge, Stewart R. Dalzell, wrote in overturning an early Internet-censorship law. For the Internet to remain so, more legislation will be needed to guarantee its openness. [bold added]
But Lewis does tweak the old argument just a bit. Earlier in his article, he notes that Google has actively aided the Chinese government in maintaining censorship. Later (and above), he argues (correctly or not) that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act can be misused to remove content from the web that ought to be freely available.
In both cases, he is counting on readers to miss the fact that there is (or may be) an element of illegitimate government interference contributing to the blockage of information. (I add now that, consonant with its property rights, no company has an obligation to provide a forum to all comers. That said, aiding government censorship remains immoral.) Not to whitewash Google for aiding Chinese censorship, but if governments the world over (including, incredibly, even Australia's) want to impose censorship, how is "more legislation" going to "guarantee" the "openness" of the Internet?
There is merit in the idea of improving the government's own conduct regarding the protection of freedom of speech in electronic media, but that is quite a different thing than proposing that it be free to dictate a Google's "corporate judgments".
Regarding the latter, Lewis might counter that Google's cooperation with the Chinese government shows that corporations, free to act on their own, will not necessarily stand up for freedom of speech. He would be correct, but the fact remains that in a free market, someone would be free to address the shortcomings of a Google. Should the YouTube owner begin pulling rather tame videos over allegedly sexual content, for example, some other competitor might decide to post just that sort of video.
A government, on the other hand, could simply threaten anyone who wants to show such videos with fines or imprisonment. In other words, decisions by even huge corporations are not backed by government force -- except when government interference in the economy such as Lewis proposes to somehow guarantee open access to all information for everyone makes it otherwise.
There are no guarantees in life. Even the leaders of a successful corporation like Google can fail to stand up for the very principles their success depends on. But unlike government officials, who can make the same mistakes, a mere corporate leader cannot force others to suffer from his mistaken judgement. This is why the best solution to the emerging problem of the abuse of technology to promote government censorship is to have the government much less involved in the communications industry.
And an important first step towards that solution is for more people to recognize the difference between government force and market share, and see that the government imposing, say, "decency" standards is a different phenomenon in kind from a corporation deciding that it need not provide a forum to pornographers, who remain free to create one of their own, provided that in doing so, they do not violate the individual rights of others.