The Gutenberg Bible is a monument to human ingenuity. It is the convergence of thousands of years of written and spoken word onto nearly 1,300 pages. It is a beautiful dedication to the advancement of knowledge. It is a paradigm shift.
If the Gutenberg Bible represents the first shots fired in the information revolution, the movement towards an open growth and dissemination of information, then the internet is the armistice. The internet represents the victory of free speech over censorship, of free access over restriction, of the free flow of ideas over a controlled and regulated information marketplace.
The internet is an amazingly powerful tool for progress in the modern age. Never before, in the course of human history, have the barriers to communication been rendered so completely antiquated.
The power of the internet to change the way all manner of tasks are approached is unparalleled, from paying bills and reading the newspaper, to factoring hundred -thousand-digit primes and combing the universe for intelligent life.
The internet derives this near-unlimited transformational potential from, (after a great generalization), freedom of content. While great advancements, great art, and great thought originate with some need, desire, or issue, a context in which to satisfy, express, or discuss without restriction is also required. The internet, given its freedom of content, can provide this context.
This freedom is important, and any imposed limits are anathema to progress. For the internet to remain relevant, these restrictions must be minimized. Like its predecessor, the written word, the internet can be restricted by lawmakers and by those who control its means of delivery.
There are numerous examples of state-mandated restriction in places such as Iran, where access to Twitter and Facebook was restricted to limit discussion about the outcome of the recent election, and China, where numerous websites are blocked or limited.
Such overt censorship, while certainly detrimental regardless of its location, comes as no surprise in countries where freedom of speech is not guaranteed. It is easy to rally against obvious abuses of state power, but in the parts of the world where individual liberty is respected, censorship is often a more contentious question.
In Germany for example, the parliament recently enacted a law that blocks access to a list of websites reportedly involved in the proliferation of child pornography. Whereas it is easy to stake a moral claim against censoring free and open access to political debate in Iran, the question, when framed as a discussion on combating the spread of contemptible material in Germany, is quite different.
The debate becomes more focused, as is often the case when politics are involved, on the nature and goals of censorship rather than on the existence of censorship itself.
In a country that explicitly guarantees freedom of speech, are the means, (the creation of a framework for internet censorship) justified by the ends (the potential limitation of the dissemination of patently illegal and morally reprehensible material)?
While a near consensus opinion exists on the subjective evaluation of child pornography, there is no way to ensure that such a consensus would exist in other instances of questionable content. With the framework in place to limit access, what is to stop the German government from utilizing the censorship architecture to filter the next, more morally ambiguous impropriety? It is, to say the least, a slippery slope.
Consider, additionally, the effectiveness of such a practice. Opponents of the law have called the implementation (restricting websites specific to a list of offenders) lazy because more proactive measures (contacting service providers to have content removed) are being passed over.
While the government plan merely prevents German citizens from accessing the illegal websites, the content remains on the internet. The effectiveness of the law, from a moral point of view, is minimized, and the potential costs of such a policy become all the more significant.
At the core of this debate is freedom of content. That is the source of the internet’s power, but it is also the well from which a seemingly infinite number of abuses spring. If the internet is a digital microcosm of humanity, then for every work of genius, the world will be presented with a failure of character.
The outcome sought by the German plan is noble but misguided and, most importantly, dangerous. Alternative methods for solving the problem of illegal content should be pursued before implementing a framework for internet censorship. Such a framework endangers the future viability of the internet to be a positive force in society.