New Technology, Old Fallacy

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 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]
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.

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.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

You mentioned the word responsibility. Your government is directly responsible for the many deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon and in many other parts of the world. Obama cannot change the world but we will try to change US policy. If you keep on supporting Israel, do not leave Iraq and Afghanistan we will do the followings: we will kill your ambassadors and their families, ceos of your companies and their families and other prominent personalities and then we will tell their families to sue the US government. No suicide bombers but we will employ snipers to kill those targets. Like in Iraq we will have our own ace, king, queen, jack etc. It will like candid camera, it can happen anytime and in any part of the world. Just wait for the surprises.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Obama cannot change the world..."

The rest of the above quote demonstrates this perfectly.

So much for all the good will and international respect -- not to mention the end to the need for fighting off savages -- that the election of Barack Obama was supposed to bring.

Burgess Laughlin said...

When I was a boy, I remember watching my father play dominoes with friends. At the end of a game he showed me how to stand a domino on end and then to line them up so that if you pushed the first one it fell into the next and so forth.

The administration of President Obama will be a circus of many acts. I can't change it. The chain of events setting its nature was put in motion decades ago. The administration itself is merely the last domino in that particular line.

Still, the "game" of stopping or slowing or diverting a fall is worth playing for those who have the time, interest, and intellect. Approached properly--and especially in the company of like-minded individuals--the game can be enjoyable in itself for now.

What I and others can affect is other lines of dominoes, the lines that have not yet begun to fall. Philosophical, intellectual, and sometimes even political activism (in that order) can have an effect, but the last domino may be beyond one's own lifetime.

Your weblog, Gus Van Horn, is in the "game." Thank you.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Approached properly--and especially in the company of like-minded individuals--the game can be enjoyable in itself for now."

I fully agree with that sentiment. My thanks to you, sir!

Dismuke said...

Something about your anonymous commentator struck me as a bit odd. A quick google search reveals that he is but a template commentator - the blog world's equivalent of what Rush Limbaugh calls "seminar callers" to talk shows.


Also see the first comment at:

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for checking that out. I'd gotten on of those before -- a Huckabee supporter -- but it didn't occur to me to check this time.