The good, the bad, and the censored?

Empty Library Shelves

I got in trouble at the library once.

This story is pretty old, since it starts with a card catalogue (and by that, I mean skinny drawers containing actual typewritten cards). I was 10 years old, and looking for Judy Blume novels I hadn’t already read in the “Author” card catalogue. I found a book titled Forever.

When I lugged my stack of books up to the circulation desk, the librarian on duty was the dour one with a tough-on-talking stance. She slapped through the books inserting due-date cards and held up the copy of Forever: “Does your mother know you’re reading this?” she asked.

“No,” I said. And then I thought: Do I need to hide this book under my bed?

It wouldn’t have mattered. The librarian called my mother on the phone later that day. When Mom asked me about the book, I thought I was in trouble, which seemed pretty lame; I had skimmed the novel earlier and found almost no good parts. You know what I mean.

Mom explained that I was not in trouble. “I told the librarian there was no problem,” she said. “If there’s a book available for checkout, and you remembered your library card, then it’s your privilege to read it.”

A lesson imparted to me when I was young (and not just in this instance), was the importance of having unlimited access to everything the library offered. It also gave me the notion that it is impossible, and probably a little dangerous, to judge books or resources or information objects as being inherently “good” or “bad.”

In the digital information age – where 10-year-olds no longer stand on tiptoe to search through card catalogues – we seem to have access to boundless information through simple Google searches. Because of the access we have online, there are situations in which modifying information searches based on people’s needs is reasonable or necessary. For example, Google users can adjust search “safety” settings. In addition, “lifestyle” search engines, such as ImHalal.com, fulfill a specialized user need.

But some information access issues have the potential to affect all users. Last week, a bill called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) was introduced to the Senate (full text is here). The bill would enable both the courts and the Attorney General to blacklist Internet domain names; the vague wording of the legislation seems to threaten a slippery slope to government censorship. Just as the librarian made a value judgment about what information was good for me, COICA appears to expand the power of government to judge the utility of information for all users in the U.S.

This sort of legislation should inspire us to think about democratization of and access to information, and the role government should take in the information age. While I believe intellectual property should be protected, the scope of this Senate bill makes me uncomfortable. It is not clear to me why a government-mandated domain blacklist is necessary if we have a vibrant digital community capable of policing its own, as well as (mostly) responsible content hosts willing to comply with relevant laws.

I do not intend to make a political statement with this post, but developments like COICA remind me of a recent statement by Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt: “Washington is an incumbent protection machine,” Schmidt said. “Technology is fundamentally disruptive.”  As users in the digital age, we should be aware of the gains to information access privileges we have made, and work to preserve the benefits of better access to information.

Photo by Lasse C.  Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

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7 thoughts on “The good, the bad, and the censored?

  1. Nick Malone says:

    Regardless of your stance on piracy & open source versus content control, I hope we can all agree that access to information has always been a key principle in the United States. The Bill of Rights enshrines a free & uncensored press as one the key tenants in maintaining an open & vibrant democracy. Now, I’m gonna take a tiny step out of 1788 & into 2010 and say that it’s actually open & uncensored access to information that supports a vibrant democracy. A key factor in the economic, and by proxy democratic, success of the United States was it’s strong protections of intellectual property. In fact, two of the very first bills passed in this country, 1790 (thank you Wikipedia), were to establish copyright & patent protection for intellectual property. While I’m all in favor of rigorous enforcement of intellectual property protections, I can’t stomach this proposal in it’s current incarnation. I think it goes too far & provides too few assurances that it won’t be used to make moral judgements on what information is good for the public & what isn’t. So, regardless of you stance on piracy & copyright protection, you should be wary of anything that might be used to make moral judgements on the information you consume.

    PS – good luck avoid politics on this.

    1. Jordan Eschler says:

      You’re right, it was tough not being political, Nick! I tried to assume the strategy of sharing information with those affected, while trying to get the point across that maybe COICA is a step in the wrong direction for the Information Age. Just today in the INFO200 lecture, the Internet was defined as “controlled anarchy”: no one really controls the Internet, currently. For me, the positives of the current state of the Internet outweigh the negatives.

  2. Nick Malone says:

    That may be, but I think we’re rapidly leaving the era where the Internet can considered ‘uncontrolled’. IMO, The uncontrolled nature of it was mostly due to the fact that we didn’t have the tools to police it in any manner other than brute force, but that’s changing. COICA is certainly a brute force technique.

    Counter point. We would never dream of letting people do whatever they want with a physical store. (ie; Bob’s Emporium of Stolen and Illegal Goods, Open 24 Hours) That would get shutdown in a heart beat & nobody would complain. So, why do we get so upset when someone suggests enforcing those same principles on the Web?

    1. Jordan Eschler says:

      I think ‘enforcement’ on the web currently (and maybe in the future) will mean something different than it does in the physical world. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that gatherings of users tend to encourage crediting original sources, but there’s a tension between the motivation to give credit where credit is due, but also engage in piracy. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and one I’m constantly researching on Reddit. Yeah…researching.

  3. Brian LeBlanc says:

    Thanks Jordan for another interesting an informative article. I plan to read the text of the COICA and see where my elected officials stand on this issue. It is vitally important that we not only keep up with the various trends in our industry but any proposed legislation as well. If you want to start a discussion group, let me know!

    1. Jordan Eschler says:

      Thanks for your comment, Brian! I think we should have some sort of discussion around this issue (perhaps in our policy & ethics class next quarter?!) and I’m trying to do my part by putting the proposed legislation “out there.”

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