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Censorship and Free Speech

In the United States, we have the First Amendment of the Constitution that guarantees us certain things.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This is less of a concern to some countries, such as China. However, modern communication capabilities can affect free speech in a lot of ways, both enhancing and diminishing, depending on how it is used. No matter how you look at it, freedom of speech will be affected in every country.

What's The Difference?

Censorship and free speech are often seen as being two sides of the same thing, censorship often defined as ``the suppression of free speech''. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this definition, but for my purposes, I find I need better definitions. My definitions have no particular force, of course, but when grappling with problems, one must often clearly define things before one can even begin discussing the problem, let alone solving it. Thus, I will establish my own personal definitions. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the traditional definitions, but it turns out that the analysis I want to do is not possible with a fuzzy conception of what ``free speech'' is.

Free Speech

It's typically bad essay form to start a section with a dictionary definition, but since I want to contrast my definition with the conventional dictionary definition, it's hard to start with anything else. Free speech is defined by as

free speech
The right to express any opinion in public without censorship or restraint by the government.
This definition misses some critical aspects of our common usage of the term. For instance, free speech is of no value if nobody is allowed to listen to the speech; people in solitary confinement have perfectly free speech, but that does not mean that we would have considered it an acceptable solution to lock up Martin Luther King Jr. in solitary confinement and let him preach what he may; along with the obvious unjust imprisionment we would consider this to be an obvious example of trampling on free speech. We should also consider the right to free speech as the right to listen to anybody we choose (subject to possible exceptions later), thus

free speech
The right to express any opinion in public without censorship or restraint by the government, and the corresponding right to experience anybody's expressions in public without censorship or restraint by government.
I use ``experience'' here as a general verb: One listens to a speech, watches a movie, reads a book or webpage, etc.

Since I don't want to define free speech in terms of censorship, lets remove that and put in its place what people are really afraid of.

free speech
The right to express any opinion in public, and the corresponding right to experience anybody's expressions in public, without being pressured, denied access, arrested, or otherwise punished by the government.
This definition really only applies to people in a government-controlled territory, like a public park. If one looks around at all of the various ways of expressing ourselves, we find that the government does not own very many of them. In common usage of the term ``free speech'', we expect ``free speech'' to allow us to say that a corporation ``sucks'', express our opinions about pop music stars, and review movies, without the non-governmental entities we are talking about, or that own the means of expression, being able to suppress our speech merely because they don't like it.

Considering both the target of the speech and the publisher of the speech is necessary. Suppose I use an Earthlink-hosted web page to criticise a Sony-released movie. If Earthlink can suppress my speech for any reason they please (on the theory that they own the wires and the site hosting), and have no legal or ethical motivation to not suppress the speech, then in theory, all Sony would have to do is convince Earthlink it is in their best interest to remove my site. The easiest way to do that is simply cut Earthlink a check exceeding the value to Earthlink of continuing to host my page, which is a trivial amount of money to Sony. In the absence of any other considerations, most people would consider this a violation of my right to ``free speech'', even though there may be nothing actually illegal in this scenario. So if we allow the owner of the means of expression to shut down our speech for any reason they see fit, it's only a short economic step to allow the target of the expression to have undue influence, especially an age where the gap between one person's resources and one corporation's resources continues to widen.

Hence the legal concept of a common carrier, both obligated to carry speech regardless of content and legally protected from the content of that speech. The ``safe harbor'' provisions in the DMCA, which further clarified this in the case of online message transmission systems, is actually a good part of the DMCA often overlooked by people who read too much Slashdot and think all of the DMCA is bad. The temptation to hold companies like Earthlink responsible for the content of their customers arises periodically, but it's important to resist this, because there's almost no way to not abuse the corresponding power to edit their customer's content.

I also change ``opinion'' to expression, to better fit the context of this definition, and let's call this ``the right to free speech'':

the right to free speech
The right to express any expression in public, and the corresponding right to experience anybody's expressions in public, without being pressured, denied access, arrested, or otherwise punished by anyone.
There are standard exceptions to free speech, for instance ``libel'', ``slander'', ``threats'', and ``community standards.'' In my opinion, these are not deeply affected by the Internet era, with the exception of what the definition of a ``community'' is. I want to leave that for later. Thus, my final definition is

the right to free speech
The right to express any expression in public, and the corresponding right to experience anybody's expressions in public, without being pressured, denied access, arrested, or otherwise punished by anyone, subject to somewhat fuzzy, but fairly well-understood exceptions.
It should be easily seen that this accurately reflects what we've known as free speech into the Internet domain (and indeed any other domain with equal ease). We can express, subject to the usual limitations, anything we want on a web page, in an e-mail, or with an instant message, and we are free to receive those expression. Unlike people behind restrictive national firewalls in countries such as China where there is no guarantee of free speech, we are largely allowed to access anything we wish.

Though it's not directly related to the definition of free speech, I'd like to add that we expect people to fund their expressions of free speech themselves, and the complementary expectation that nobody is obligated to fund speech they disagree with. For instance, we don't expect people to host comments that are critical about them on their own site.

By far the most important thing that this definition captures that the conventional definitions do not is the symmetry required of true free speech. Free speech is not merely defined in terms of the speakers, but also the listeners.


For structural symmetry with the Free Speech section, let's go ahead and start with the dictionary definition:

Censorship is the act of censoring.
OK, that was particularly useless.

The best way to understand my definition of censoring is to consider the stereotypical example of military censorship. During World War II, when Allied soldiers wrote home from the front, all correspondence going home was run through [human] censors to remove any references that might allow someone to place where that soldier was, what that soldier was armed with, etc. The theory was that if that information was removed, it couldn't end up in the hands of the enemy, which could be detrimental to the war effort. The soldier (sender) sent the message home (receiver) via the postal service as a letter (medium). The government censors intercepted that message and modified it before sending it on. If the censor so chose, they could even completely intercept the letter and prevent anything from reaching home.

This leads me naturally to my basic definition of censorship:

Censorship is the act of changing a message, including the change of deletion (complete elimination of the message), between the sender and the receiver.
Censorship is not always evil; few would argue that when practiced responsibly, military censorship as described above is truly ethically wrong. Censorship is a tool like anything else, it can be used to accomplish good or evil. But like war, censorship must be used sparingly, and only when truly necessary.

The Middleman - Not Censorship

There is one last thing that we must take into account, and that is the middleman. Newspapers often receive a press release, but they may process, digest, and editorialize on the basis of that press release, not simply run the press release directly. The Internet is granting astonishing new capabilities to the middlemen, in addition to making the older ways of pre-processing information even easier, and we should not label those all as censorship.

Fortunately, there is a simple criterion we can apply. Do both the sender and the receiver agree to use this information middleman? If so, then no censorship is occurring. This seems intuitive; newspapers aren't really censoring, they're just being newspapers.

You could look at this as not being censorship only as long as the middlemen are being truthful about what sort of information manipulation they are performing. You could equally well say that it is impossible to characterize how a message is being manipulated because a message is such a complicated thing once you take context into account. Basically, since this is simply a side-issue that won't gain us anything, so we leave it to the sender, receiver, and middleman to defend their best interests. It takes the agreement of all three to function, which can be removed at any time, so there is always an out.

For example, many news sites syndicate headlines and allow anybody to display them, including mine. If a news site runs two articles, one for some position and one against, and some syndication user only runs one of the stories, you might claim that distorts the meaning of the original articles taken together. Perhaps this is true, but if the original news site was worried about this occurring, perhaps those stories should not have been syndicated, or perhaps they should have been bound more tightly together, or perhaps this isn't really a distortion. Syndication implies that messages will exist in widely varying contexts.

Like anything else, there is some flex room here. The really important point is to agree that the criterion is basically correct. We can argue about the exact limits later.

So, my final definition:

Censorship is the act of changing a message, including the act of deletion, between the sender and the receiver, without the sender's and receiver's consent and knowledge.
In terms of the communication model, censorship occurs when somebody interrupts or interferes with the medium such that a message is tampered with while traveling from the sender to the receiver.

The Difference

Going back to the original communication model I outlined earlier, the critical difference between the two definitions becomes clear. Free speech is defined in terms of the endpoints, in terms of the rights of the senders and receivers. Censorship is defined in terms of control over the medium.

The methods of suppressing free speech and the methods of censoring are very different. Suppression of free speech tends to occur through political or legal means. Someone is thrown in jail for criticizing the government, and the police exert their power to remove the controversial content from the Internet. On the receiver's side, consider China, which is an entire country who's government has decided that there are publicly available sites on the Internet that will simply not be available to anybody in that country, such as the Wall Street Journal. Suppressing free speech does not really require a high level of technology, just a high level of vigilance, which all law enforcement requires anyhow.

Censorship, on the other hand, is taking primarily technological forms. Since messages flow on the Internet at speeds vastly surpassing any human's capabilities to understand or process, technology is being developed that attempts to censor Internet content, with generally atrocious results. (A site called Peacefire has been good at documenting the failures of some of the most popular censorware, as censoring software is known.) Nevertheless, the appeal of such technology to some people is such that in all likelihood, money will continue to be thrown at the problem until some vaguely reasonable method of censorship is found.

Combating Censorship and Free Speech Suppression

The ways of combating suppression of free speech and censorship must also differ. Censorship is primarily technological, and thus technological answers may be found to prevent censorship, though making it politically or legally unacceptable can work. Suppression of free speech, on the other hand, is primarily political and legal, and in order to truly win the battle for free speech, political and legal power will need to be brought to bear.

These definitions are crafted to fit into the modern model of communication I am using, and I have defined them precisely enough that hopefully we can recognize it when we see it, because technology-based censorship can take some truly surprising forms, which we'll see as we go.


next up previous contents
Next: Software and Software Patents Up: The Ethics of Modern Previous: A Communication Model   Contents