Freedom of speech and internet exceptionalism

Freedom of Speech (painting)

"Freedom of Speech" (a painting)

Why target WikiLeaks in the first place? Central to thinking this is acceptable lies in the notion of ‘digital (or internet) exceptionalism’, which means in effect that there is a fundamental difference between a digital something and a hard object something — one might say that digital objects don’t exist in the real world so aren’t subject to the checks and balances of real world protections.

I wrote in an earlier post asking what if WikiLeaks were a book. Believing in digital exceptionalism I suggest makes some people feel they can take more liberties in the internet or digital world with fundamental freedoms.

I am protected if I write a letter to the editor that is critical of the government as the newspaper is part of the pantheon of institutions that we associate with freedom of speech. I put the same comment on Twitter or Facebook, and I may find myself censored through loss of my account (something to do with a fair use policy).  These internet companies have emerged not for the purposes of advancing our freedoms, but for specific commercial goals by exploiting the social dimension of the internet. What the newspapers and television know, but these firms don’t, is that a central plank of social interaction is not just freedom of association (or not to associate), but also freedom to speak freely without censorship. (Why do you think they locked up photocopiers in communist states? Why do some countries try to lock up the internet in a similar way?) Perhaps the only firm that really understands the maxim that information wants to be free are search engines such as Google.

The digital world is not exceptional. It is just another place where our freedoms are explored and developed, and need protecting.

I have first hand experience with digital exceptionalism form work on patient access to health information over the internet, where some people wanted to vet and control health information — some people still think health information over the internet should be government approved! (Why else would the UK’s National Health Service see itself as the only authoritative source of health information?) What is disturbing about this attitude is that most of that information is freely and readily available in a decent sized bookstore. In fact, a freely available book from a bookstore published freely without censorship (and probably full of errors like the Oxford Encyclopedia of Medicine), would become subject to government control when available digitally.

Because the ditial environment changes most if not all the rules of access to information, people think that somehow it is fundamentally different and therefore should be seen as exceptional.

We are at a new hinge-point in the evolution of the internet, where we are now having to really deal with digital exceptionalism and freedom of speech (and perhaps the extent to which censorship has been privatised through PayPal, Mastercard, and one suspects others to come). My view is that the internet is not a different place, with different rules, but the same place subject to the same rules we have spent centuries developing into the open societies of today. I know patients are much better off for having easier and less mediated access to health information that used to be the sole gift of doctors and nurses. The same can be said of other information.

Efforts to censor, control, and channel digital content are just as nasty and illiberal as they would be were they directed at a television channel, newspaper or a publisher.  If we decide otherwise, I fear for our freedoms.

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