Saturday, 7 June 2008

Freedom of Blog - Will Blogs lead to the downfall of individual freedom?

Last month I read an article that reported that a man in Singapore was arrested because of racial comments post on his blog*. Initially I felt outrage that the police could come knocking on your door, confiscate your computer and arrest you for publicizing your thoughts on the Internet. However, I found that this was not an isolated incident and in fact in 2005 a precedent had already been set* when one Singaporean and 2 Malaysian youths were arrested for posting racist comments on a BBS.

The first image that came into my mind after reading this article was of an H.G. Wells Utopia where everything seemed peaceful and ordered during the day but in the cover of night the citizens are like the Eloi (human cattle) who are controlled, manipulated and eaten by the Morlocks*. Of course that is a gross exaggeration of the topic at hand but as with most discussion about freedom vs. oppression, the conclusions are never definitive but instead raise more questions about where we should draw the line.

The other question that arises is whether this really an infringement of freedom of speech or of the press. Wikipedia states that "freedom of the press implies that all people should have the right to express themselves in writing or in any other way of expression of personal opinion or creativity. The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers"", however it does start that definition with "In developed countries..."

Similarly, Wikipedia also defines "Freedom of speech is being able to speak freely without censorship. The right to freedom of speech is guaranteed under international law through numerous human-rights instruments, notably under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, although implementation remains lacking in many countries. The synonymous term freedom of expression is sometimes preferred, since the right is not confined to verbal speech but is understood to protect any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used." but then continues to commence the second paragraph with "In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country..."

You would think that these qualifiers to the definition to the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press were referring to small underdeveloped nations or nations that gave no illusion of democracy like China or Russia but this debate has been going on since the the enactment of the First Amendment of the US Constitution which states that "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."*, and to fully understand this debate in the context of blogs there are two hurdles that must be overcome.

First of all, the US Constitution does not have global jurisdiction and secondly even in the US, the First Amendment is subject to interpretation as outlined in a blog by Scott Cleland* when Google/YouTube was instructed to remove terrorist or terror inciting video's from YouTube.

The concept of speech or press not being protected by constitutional freedoms if they incite violence or revolt is not a new concept. In fact as far back as
1765 Sir William Blackstone commented about the English system

"Where blasphemous, immoral, treasonable, schismatical, seditious, or scandalous libels are punished by English law the liberty of the press, properly understood, is by no means infringed or violated. ... Every freeman has undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity."

Which basically means, you have the freedom to publish but we the Government have the freedom to punish.

Since then, the media has been mostly self regulating and most publications with a wide circulation have generally been careful to publish only what society will accept but in the last five years or so, the concept of blogging has become somewhat of a phenomenon. Through the web, anybody with an internet connection has the potential to share their opinions, feelings, thoughts and misguided beliefs instantaneously to the globe. We are not talking about just those people who actually read blogs but more so, the wider public is exposed to these opinions through micro-blogging services like twitter, search engines like Google, instant messaging and even mainstream media like CNN often derive their stories from internet chatter.

It is now possible for a "reclusive nobody" to gain instant global recognition from the basement of his mother suburban bungalow. For Governments, who must consider public security, safety of citizens, domestic unrest and general mob mentality, their only option is to move away from individual liberties. It is said that "the pen is mightier than the sword" but in these times of "hyperconnectivity" as suggested by Mark Pesce recently, is giving anyone with an opinion (misguided or otherwise) the nuclear option.

Bringing this back to an individual perspective, the 17 year old kid, with the police at his door simply because of what he wrote on a BBS seems a little Nazi, but considering the shift in power, one begins to understand that Democracy and Authoritarianism are not actually opposite ends of a political spectrum but in fact share the same goal of keeping the masses under control. The difference is that Democracy uses the power of compromise and engagement to keep the sheep in the pen and Authoritarians utilize oppression to maintain control. The frightening reality (being realized now through the impact of blogs) is that although the Cold War existed on this difference of opinion between Communism and Democracy the global political challenge today is not about ideology. This next war will be against an Anarchy that powered by a decentralized global bullhorn.

As more governments and citizens realize this, you will see more and more controls on the internet, more and more oversight on content and greater restrictions to interconnectivity between different systems. Enjoy what you have now because I believe that we may be the only generation to experience this level of internet freedom.

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