Beware censorship says Oliver Morton, editor of `Wired' magazine

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The revolution in communications sweeping the planet - a revolution in which the Internet plays a crucial part - will eventually prove as potent a political force as the rise of industrial mass production. It will change the ways in which people relate to each other individually and in groups; it will change the ways in which we define the public sphere; it will change the distribution of power in the workplace and in society at large.

This huge potential makes it all the more depressing that the only issue of Internet politics that ever makes it to the news pages is censorship. The Internet should no more be censored than the world's telephone networks. People should be free to know what sort of material an Internet provider offers them and providers should be able to set their own standards - but only if not setting standards is a recognised possibility, too. If material on the Internet is evidence of a crime, then the criminals responsible should be sought out. But to judge the private conversations and choices of adults with access to the whole world according to the vagaries of this country's obscenity laws - or Germany's laws limiting political free speech - is just not a workable or desirable response. Freedom of speech has its costs. The alternatives are worse.

This is one of the truths we feel is important for people trying to build a better future, and it features in the manifesto for the future published in the current issue of Wired, an excerpt from which appears below. The whole picture, though, is much, much bigger.

Technology equals Culture. Culture equals Technology

Today's leaders scorn the possibility of a golden age in which economies are based on limitless ideas, not limited materials. They refuse to see that abundance, not scarcity, drives the future and that widespread connection can replace widespread alienation.

But the ruling classes will not release their grasp on the present to reach for the future. They reflexively prefer the big and controllable over the small and self-organising. They want a world of nations and governments, not of sovereign communities choosing their own limits. They pretend that democracy is best served by eliminating voices that might shock, offend or threaten. They encourage us to think the worst of ourselves, with endless moral panics and dishonest nostalgia. They treat us like idiots while campaigning for office, pay lip-service to our wisdom over the ballot box and then ignore us in the conviction that they know what is best.

We reject such leadership categorically and absolutely. The leaders of the digital society must convince us of what is right, not simply forbid what might be wrong. They must understand that technology is not just a means of producing things, but also a means of creating culture - and a cultural creation in itself, for which we all share responsibility.

They must know that, in a world of rapid change, optimism is essential for survival. They must allow us to build a new civic society in which the technological possibility for everyone to speak, to connect, becomes the basis of all political action. We will not find that leadership in today's politicians. This leadership is something we must find within ourselves and we now have the tools to do this. We must learn how to use them.

Open a free market for thought

Digital technology turns censorship on its head. The traditional approach of trying to silence potentially offensive speech is not only morally suspect, it is also virtually impossible. Politicians in Britain and around Europe - in the French parliament, in the German Landtag - want to do it anyway, regulating what can be said on the Net and how it can be said, in the same way that they regulate television. This is as wrong as it is pointless.

The capacity of digital networks to carry information is all but unlimited. "Bad" messages do not displace "good" ones. There is no real common-good basis for stopping communications as there might be for broadcasts over the limited spectrum allocated to television. So there is no good reason to limit the ability to talk. The important thing is to allow people to control what they listen to. Make sure that individuals and communities have ways and means by which to choose their own standards for what is, or is not, too offensive for general consumption. Technology already enables them to filter out potentially offensive messages without imposing these standards on others and this technology is growing ever more sophisticated. The governments now trying to hold Internet service providers (ISPs) liable for the ideas and images their networks carry would do better to protect them and go after real paedophiles, terrorists and other wrongdoers. Governments should also encourage communities - which may include some ISPs which elect to add the role of community builder to that of communicator - to use their ability to filter out what their constituents do not wish to hear.

The basic principle remains: those who wish to speak should always be as free to do so as everyone else is to ignore them. The digital society is a place of abundance, not of limitations; of choice, not diktat.