Chapter 3: Censoring Information (We Know What's Best for You)

Chapter 3: Censoring Information (We Know What's Best for You)


Censorship cannot eliminate evil, it can only kill freedom.


DECIDING WHAT SOMEONE ELSE CAN SEE, READ, AND HEAR IS A PERPETUAL DILEMMA. Parents, for example, want the right to control what their kids may explore on the Internet, using their own ethical standards (which may be completely different from another parent's ethical standards) as a guideline. One parent may feel that children should freely explore any topic, such as homosexuality or Buddhism, in an intelligent, rational manner, while a second parent may be horrified to find a child learning anything that contradicts the parent's own beliefs, such as studying how another religion worships God. In this situation, the ultimate authority must rest with the parents, regardless of whether anyone believes they can make intelligent decisions or not.

National governments face a similar dilemma. What should a government allow its citizens to access on the Internet? Not surprisingly, many governments want to prevent their citizens from viewing any information that may contradict or criticize the government's official version of the news.

Some countries, like Saudi Arabia and China, funnel Internet access through state-owned Internet service providers, which have filters that only allow users to access government-approved websites. Prodigy filters Internet access for Chinese citizens with the blessings of the Chinese government, while Saudi Arabia relies on technology purchased from another American company, Secure Computing (, to filter Internet access for its citizens.

(The irony of any company knowingly accepting money from an oppressive government to keep its citizens ignorant should not be lost on anyone. When Secure Computing's Saudi Arabian contract expires, companies from America, Germany, England, and the Netherlands plan to bid on the multimillion dollar contract, in the hopes of supplying much of the Middle East with Internet filters. Apparently the biggest problem with freedom of speech is that it's more profitable to suppress it instead.)

While many people expect that communist governments and dictatorships will readily embrace Internet censorship, they may be surprised to learn that many so-called democratic governments eagerly view censorship as a way to tackle the twin problems of pornography and terrorism (and also anti-government information) on the Internet. Under the guise of protecting children from Internet pornography, Australia has passed some of the most restrictive filtering laws in the world, holding Internet service providers responsible for filtering Internet access. Essentially, Australia deems pornography illegal when it is online, but perfectly legal to buy offline.

The problem isn't that Internet filtering blocks pornography from both adults and children, but that the Internet filters themselves are highly unreliable and totally subject to the whims of the manufacturer, which are often foreign companies. So programmers in other countries are essentially in charge of deciding what Internet sites Australian citizens can access on their computers.

Another form of censorship has been considered by the Internet Service Providers Association of India—charging a tariff on overseas Internet websites. Under this system, if a company such as eBay or MSN wanted citizens from India to access their websites, the site would first need to pay a fee to the Indian government. Any website that refused to pay this tariff would simply be blocked from India's Internet market.

One potentially disturbing trend in the United States is the consolidation of Internet service providers, especially those that offer high-speed broadband Internet access. If only a handful of cable and telephone companies control high-speed Internet access, there's the chance that they (either alone or under the coercion of the government) could filter or block access to certain websites, and thus create a form of corporate censorship that might be more threatening than any government-sponsored censorship could ever be.