Is the Internet Too Censorious?


In "Not Your Father's Censorship," Harvard professor Harry Lewis ends on this worrisome point:

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 [Digital Millenium Copyright Act] 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.

Whole essay here in the Chronicle of Higher Education, via Arts & Letters Daily.

I find this worrisome partly because I'm not sure what the point is. Does Lewis want more government regulation of the the tubes? Or less?

Virtually across the board, the DMCA is a bad law, which just gave big content companies whatever they wanted. It will go away eventually because tech marches on, but it can do a lot of damage in the meantime; would that it were dismantled today.

However, the idea that Google and YouTube should be held to different rules because they are ginormous in today's market is troubling. For starters, as Lewis notes, you can go elsewhere to post and read material. Indeed, precisely to the degree that big sites start to be seen as choking off more and more things, they'll lose market share. In any case, the point is not the guarantee of an audience or a slot on a big site. It's the freedom to express yourself somewhere.

One trend that's making a comeback with the Obama ascendancy is the need for smart folks not to regulate the Net per se, but to, you know, come up with better rules that will help make sure that everything that's so super-duper about cyberspace stays that way (see Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet for a taste of this argument). As a replay of debates that took from 15 or so years ago, there's always a lot of subtle or not-so-subtle attacks on how commercialization, profits, etc. will somehow destroy the very ethos of the ether and lead to Internet equivalent of Wal-Mart (or back in the day, AOL, which somehow managed to bring Internet access to more people than any other provider).

Reason on the Internet.