The limits of freedom


There are two general truths about attitudes to censoring the Internet. The first is that hardly anyone admits to favouring it in principle. The second is that whoever you are, and however libertarian, it should never take more than five minutes at the keyboard to find something you believe should be removed from the net, and its perpetrators locked up in a criminal lunatic asylum.

Most of the truly disgusting stuff I have come across has been religious in inspiration: the Nuremberg Files website, whose perpetrators were fined $100 million by an Oregon jury last week, is one example. This is a site on which pictures of mangled foetuses mingle with photographs of doctors, usually framed by a line which increasingly drips blood. The doctors' names and addresses are published, and if they are murdered by anti-abortion fanatics, then an "X" is placed in front of their photographs.

This sort of thing may not harm children, but it clearly acts to corrupt and deprave the adults who take it seriously. The charmingly named stops short of incitement to murder, but it is not much of an adver- tisement for homo sapiens. There are also the various Holocaust-denying sites and the aryan churches of Idaho and western Montana.

Still, my collection of offensive religious sites is probably the result of a sampling error. I have a professional interest in being shocked by believers. A more balanced person could find plenty of secular things to censor: as well as the fairly obvious child porn there are some truly gut-wrenchingly awful displays of pornography with adults, too; and once a month someone with an account at the University of Michigan posts detailed and completely humourless instructions on how to have sexual intercourse with dogs and ponies (there's also something called "scaly sex", which I have not read up).

The provenance of these messages shows the first difficulty with censoring the Internet, which is that the First Amendment is held to allow anyone in a university to say anything at all. One might ask why American laws should apply in this country, or in Germany, and the answer is simple brute force. The only way you can enforce rules about the content of a website is by physically controlling it. Since it is trivially easy for anyone with Internet access to rent a website in the USA, it is American laws and standards that determine what is acceptable around the world. The result is that you are much more likely to be sent to jail for having a copy of Windows 98 on your website than a picture of a woman having sex with a pig. If there were a child involved, you might get into as much trouble but there wouldn't be nearly as many lawyers hunting you down.

The paradox in this is that individual American communities are extremely censorious: that is why American network television, which must appeal to all of them, is so bland, and why American textbooks, which dare not offend parents, are even worse for children than television is. But while almost every American community is in favour of censorship, or at least savage sanctions against unpopular speech, they all disapprove of different things. Some want to keep Darwin out of the schoolroom; others would sack people for saying "niggardly". So the choice seems to lie between complete licence and stultifying conformity. Either you offend almost all community standards, or none.

If there has to be a choice, I would rather, I suppose, have anarchy than inoffensiveness. I make my living from words, and I would not want this trade threatened by a prison sentence just because I offended someone; and this would be the natural reflex of most of the people who write about the subject. But on reflection, it's less clear that we ought to be so smug. If words could not deprave and corrupt when abused, why would we bother using them in the first place? I'd still rather not suffer for my opinions, but I do hope that they can make my enemies wish I were suffering.

The libertarian case relies on a distinction between speech and act which is really quite hard to sustain when you look at it closely. An economist would point out that a journalist actually makes his living delivering readers to advertisers. This is true even when the advertisements are a great deal more subtle than simply crossing out the photographs of murdered doctors. No one who visited the Nuremberg Files site could have been in any doubt about the intention of the pictures and phone numbers there. There are times when censorship is a victory for civilisation: if speech is completely free, it is also valueless.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers