Yes. He really said that!

Monday, January 30, 2006

I occasionally read an article that makes me especially grateful that Ayn Rand was so dedicated to the cause of individual rights. I wonder, with the education I had up to the point I encountered her writings, whether I would have been able to untie the following tangle of contradictions so easily without having made her acquaintance.

No copyright, no publishing revenue. No revenue, no new books. If Google is to have a second stage of life, it will have to accept the reality of intellectual property. After all, Google has accepted the reality of China.
If it sounds to you like that the author, William Rees-Mogg, has just equated censorship with copyright, you have a good ear. That is exactly what he did!

Let's see how he got there. We will see, in the process, what is wrong with the above paragraph. You will notice that as I go along, I will frequently refer to the concept of "individual rights". This concept is conspicuously absent from Rees-Mogg's argument, and if you aren't used to thinking about individual rights, his argument will therefore sound semi-plausible.

Rees-Mogg starts out with an admission: He claims that current efforts by Google to index scholarly texts as threatening the whole notion of copyright, and that his business depends on copyright being protected.
When I write about Google I have to declare an interest. I am the chairman of a small academic publisher; Pickering & Chatto was founded in 1820 and refounded in 1983. We publish scholarly texts and depend on our copyright for the sales of our books. Google threatens that copyright, along with the whole copyright structure of authors, editors and publishers of printed books and, indeed, e-books.
Since copyright is protected by the government, if Google actually does violate copyrights, there is a remedy already in place to any predations Google may undertake. Given that Rees-Mogg has just noted (in his title) that Google accepts censorship, I would be suspicious of his motives. Very suspicious. The businessman doth protest too much.
However, copyright is not the only problem raised by the success of Google's wonderful search engine. Along with copyright, and the revenue based on it, there are the issues of political and social censorship. Google has been forced by the Chinese Government to agree to political censorship. There will be only minimal reports of Falun Gong, Tiananmen Square or Tibet on Google's China service. The majority of Google's Chinese customers will not be told what the rest of the world knows on the subjects.
Rees-Mogg prevaricates. The Chi-Comms did not "force" Google to do anything. Google willingly submitted to government censorship without a fight. Note that Rees-Mogg slips in the qualifiers "political" and "social" for censorship. He has a reason for this, as we shall see soon enough.
Here again, I must declare an interest. I have been a quasi-censor. I accept that there should be some social censorship of the internet. In 1989, before the internet became important, I agreed to be the first Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council. We were not formally censors -- we had no powers -- but we did study and discuss what would be appropriate to show on television, including the limits for sex, violence and bad language, and the need for the protection of children.
The issue of what is appropriate for children to see on television is certainly a valid concern -- for their parents. Efforts to get the government involved in the infringement of free speech are often done in the name of the "welfare" of children. Just ask the news media in Venezuela some time.

But we can cut Rees-Mogg some slack for the moment. There is nothing wrong with a private group doing something like rating the appropriateness of shows for young audiences in an effort to help busy parents. Indeed, a private broadcasting corporation would be entirely within its rights to "censor" the shows it airs since it is not obligated to show anything.

Furthermore, unlike the government, which can legally use force against citizens, such a corporation is unable to prevent someone from seeing whatever it chooses not to show. That is the essential difference between private censorship, which derives from property rights and violates no one's right to free speech, and government censorship, which always violates the right to freedom of speech and can often violate property rights as well.

Surely, all Rees-Mogg wants is private censorship, isn't it?
On most public issues I come down on the libertarian side, but I accept the need for some social protections. Indeed, I think it important that editing in the public interest should be done by reasonably liberal-minded people. They must accept criticism and suspicion of their work. Censors are always unpopular and sometimes ridiculous, but they may be necessary. [bold added]
"Editing in the public interest", eh? The hallmark of anything being done in "the public interest" is that it is manifestly not being done in someone's self-interest. Oh. So Rees-Mogg does accept government censorship for "social protections", as if the ability to speak freely is not the greatest "social protection" we have against tyranny, and so long as "liberal-minded people" like himself are doing the censoring! (Those who support tyranny would do well to stop indulging in the fantasy of themselves as benevolent dictator. The body- and spirit-crushing realities of dictatorship always have an ugly way of conforming to some thug's most perverse desires.)

By what standard is government censorship to be judged "necessary"?
Google, and other global operators on the internet, does in fact accept the principle of social censorship, however little they like it. There is an obvious example in paedophile pornography, which is almost universally banned, at least in theory. There are also types of adult pornography, such as "snuff" films, in which real murders are, or purport to be, shown; nobody defends them. I do not know how its security systems work, but I do not think that snuff films would get through Google's safeguards. They would not certainly not be compatible with its famous motto, "Don't be evil".
So is shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater no longer an "obvious" example of something not protected as free speech? Or does pedophilia make it easier to equivocate between legitimate restrictions on what can be said (i.e., things that violate someone's rights) and theTrojan Horse of "social censorship"? Child pornography at some point involves violating the rights of a child, who cannot give informed consent to pose in pornography. Snuff films, as documentaries of murders, by their nature can serve only as evidence in a trial, involving as they do, the violation of someone's right to live.

To refer to the fact that child pornography and snuff films are illegal as "social censorship" is doubly wrong. (1) It ignores the fact that one man's rights do not supercede another's. And (2), it uses the name of a violation of the rights of one man to refer to what is actually a protection of the rights of another! This would be like pointing out that policemen sometimes have to kill criminals, and saying that sometimes it is necessary to have "social murder".

And where does Rees-Mogg go in his Trojan Horse?
The real difficulty comes in the area between social and political censorship. Most of us are agreed that child pornography should be banned, both because it necessarily invokes the abuse of children and because it may feed an addiction to paedophile conduct. Most of us are agreed that there should be no censorship of political information or political criticism.
Note that he said nothing about "rights", which exist whether or not "most of us agree" that they do, and whether or not a government chooses to protect them.
Google may have felt there was no commercial alternative to agreeing to the Chinese request. That was the only way it could remain in the Chinese market. Nevertheless Google itself regrets the compromise it believes that it had to make.
If Google truly "regretted" its "compromise", it would have stopped doing business in China or at least done something about renegotiating the terms under which it operated there. No. Google feels like making a quick buck at the expense of its independence and in direct contradiction to its stated, older policies of not censoring search results or "do[ing] evil".
This censorship is also damaging to China's reputation. No regime that cannot afford to have its policies examined can be really secure. Nothing could be more absurd than to see the great world power of China shrinking back from the spectacle of Falun Gong like a timorous old lady shrinking back at the sight of a mouse. It devalues China. In any case, the Chinese are clever people, operating with world networks, and with millions of computers. Attempts at this sort of censorship are bound to fail.
"Attempts at this sort of censorship are bound to fail." And if they do, the tanks will roll. The inability of an oppressive regime to wage a successful war against the reality that it cannot control everybody all the time will not stop it from trying. This is so much pap designed to soothe the reader. Here's a translation you won't get at "Even those evil Chinese censors won't really work, so why not let a 'liberal-minded' 'quasi-censor' like me have my say over Google in the realm of what I feel to be copyright?"

And, now that "social censorship" has been equated with the banning of child pornography and "political censorship" dismissed as so much harmless fluff, Rees-Mogg cashes in on the confusion. (In fact, now that "social censorship" has served to smuggle in the notion that governmental censorship is OK, Rees-Mogg admits that he sees it and "political censorship" as merely different points on a morally grey continuum!)
Midway between social and political censorship, there arises the issue of terrorism. I am sure that terrorists could use Google as an element in their training schemes. Indeed, many of them must already have done so. Yet, in principle, governments have every reason, and surely every right, to try to make the terrorists' task more difficult. Presumably the CIA has inserted its probes, human and electronic, into Google. Where terrorism is relying on Google information, the CIA is justified in doing so. Terrorism attacks liberty in two ways, by its frontal assault and by the legitimate reaction of governments. Google cannot be immune to this process.
Yes. Our government collecting information to prevent terrorists from blowing us to bits is, in Rees-Mogg's mind, not so different than what the Chinese are doing when they seek to stifle political dissent. He does throw the term "liberty" in twice, but this is not because he relates it to copyright. The first time is just to cause panic in the audience long enough, he hopes, to make us not see this crucial difference. And the second time, he insinuates that a proper response of our government somehow "attacks" liberty" with the implication being that little "attacks on liberty" (e.g., censorship) are a normal function of the government.

Again, the CIA is protecting individual rights. The Chi-Comms are violating them. Even if the technology employed by both were identical, that would mean nothing. Why each did this would be what is important. This is a black-and-white difference. There is no continuum of moral grayness between the actions of the CIA and those of the Chi-Comms.

And, for the final cashing in: Rees-Mogg, who either fails to understand the concept of rights entirely or hopes no one else does, paints a portrait of dire doom should Google -- not a government entity -- somehow "abolish" copyright.
Copyright is the other great issue. It is an issue that extends well beyond Google and well beyond publishing. Copyright is the basis for the remuneration of invention; indeed, the only other substantial basis for financing invention, in all areas, is government expenditure, and that is much less effective. If there were no copyright, there would be no money to finance newspapers (a quickly muted hoorah from the Liberal Democrats), books, films, recorded music, new drugs or the development of the internet itself. Copyright is the mother of invention. No copyright -- no revenue -- no innovation.
But how would Google end copyright?
Yet there is a conflict of interest between search engines and the right to intellectual property. Google plans to put whole libraries on to its system, and offer free copying rights to its users. Searches would throw up key passages in all the books in a library. Google requires owners of copyright who do not want their books to be copied and extracted to inform the company that they do not agree to this copying. But that is the opposite of the normal procedure in which the copier has to approach the copyright holder. The danger -- put simply -- is that people will not buy books; they will wait to download them free from Google.

There is indeed a strong tradition among internet users that as much as possible on the internet should be free, and that nothing should be censored. As ideals, these may seem reasonable enough. The issue in the case of literary copyright turns on this question: is the free communication of free information more valuable to society than the financing of future publications? Would we benefit by having free J. K. Rowling in the present at the cost of having no J. K. Rowling in the future?
This scenario is absurd. I assume that British law has some species of "fair use" for short passages of books. For longer passages or entire books, that can get very inconvenient and very expensive very quickly. Who wants to sit around while the printer -- if it doesn't jam, run out of paper or ink, or otherwise malfunction -- spits out the 900 pages of his "free copy" of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? And who wants to read that thing in loose-leaf form? Furthermore, I am sure that even a country that can produce someone as befuddled as Rees-Mogg has legal provisions to stop some publishing house from mass-producing books from Google results. I haven't even addressed the flip side of Rees-Mogg's argument: That the ease of finding and sampling from some otherwise obscure books might even increase their sales.

This is not to pooh-pooh the idea that there could be legal issues raised by Google's penetration into and potential mastery of Rees-Mogg's domain, but I think his concerns are overblown. And worse, by equating copyright with censorship, he has injured his own cause:
No copyright, no publishing revenue. No revenue, no new books. If Google is to have a second stage of life, it will have to accept the reality of intellectual property. After all, Google has accepted the reality of China.
If copyright is to survive, people like Mr Rees-Mogg need understand the reality of China. And to do that, they must first rediscover individual rights. A society that confuses censorship and copyright will soon not have to worry too much about copyright -- and I don't mean that in the way Rees-Mogg hopes.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

That was an excellent analysis of Rees-Moog's article. I liked the way you identified his obfuscation of laws against child pornography equals censorship. Keep up the great work.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Mike!

It strikes me as particularly low when shills for such bankrupt notions as censorship and the welfare state attempt to get a free pass simply by claiming to be on the lookout for children.