Should Internet Censorship be Allowed?


Book burning is one of the most horrific acts humans are capable of and when done by an oppressive regime with the goal being to keep information from reaching the hands of its citizens, all humans lose out. In the age of the Internet however Web sites and social networking services sometimes take the place of books – and shutting such services down could be considered the equivalent of burning books.

The issue arises once again via the controversy surrounding Google vs. China as well as more recently, Pakistan blocking 17 web sites considered offensive or blasphemous. While it unclear which websites were blocked what is interesting about this recent news is which sites Pakistan has said publicly it is monitoring. These are some of the largest and most important ones around and include – Yahoo, Google, YouTube, Amazon, MSN, Hotmail and Bing.

The country has already been at odds with Facebook over a page which encourages drawing of the Prophet Mohammed which is considered sacrilegious by many Muslims. YouTube too has been blocked in the past by the country.

Of course I acknowledge how people can be offended my many different things and what may be funny to a group of people may be horrific to others. Still, whenever I see censorship of any kind I think of book burnings. A visit to Wikipedia reminds us of some of the worst book burning tragedies:

Some particular cases of book burning are long and traumatically remembered – because the books destroyed were irreplaceable and their loss constituted a severe damage to cultural heritage, and/or because this instance of book burning has become emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime. Such were the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the obliteration of the Library of Baghdad, the burning of books and burying of scholars under China’s Qin Dynasty, the destruction of Mayan codices by Spanish conquistadors and priests, and in more recent times, Nazi book burnings, the burning of Beatles records after a remark by John Lennon concerning Jesus Christ, and the destruction of the Sarajevo National Library.

A while back I inferred the blockage of YouTube could be used as a political barometer to freedom. Pakistan and Iran were a few of the countries I covered in my posts.

A point of concern for all should be that offensive content is pervasive and eventually as a site gets large enough it will become a magnet for content which will offend some people. This by definition means the chance of sites getting blocked increases as they grow over time and as this happens there becomes an inverse flow of free information to the people in the country.

Of course my point is theoretical – Facebook stepped in recently to block certain content which was deemed offensive from being seen in Pakistan – problem solved. Still, whenever such cases emerge I am reminded by an important quote from Thomas Jefferson, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

I am wondering if my readers feel as strongly as I do on the matter – do you think Internet censorship should be allowed – realizing that world could come together to put pressure on governments who get too heavy-handed. Is this the electronic version of book burning in your opinion? Or do you think that there are so many offensive sites on the web that content like religious intolerance, hate speech and child pornography should be eliminated before anyone gets a chance to see them at all.

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