Comments on censorship and freedom of information

Bob and the rest of you, your comments are genius, so I'm pulling them out of the Javascript-obscured comments [0] and putting them onto the main page, where Google can find them -- let me know if that pisses you off. Freedom of access to information is the whole point of this conversation, after all. Meanwhile, hits are holding steady at about 1000 per day, coming from all over the world, with search strings like "Carlton Cole rumours". It's conversations like this, rare as they are, that make a blog really worth having. Un-annotated comments follow (I have restored the line breaks that my rather crude comment system removes; use HTML in the comments!):

Bob wrote:

I tend to agree with liberal policies, being on the side of transparency, freedom, autonomy, bottom-up power, and any number of other buzzwords. For me this is very important, and even has a deeply rooted philosophical underpinning, being linked to my views on Popperian epistemology and politics.

However, thing is, no matter much we want systems, such as the scientific community, or the media, to allow autonomous forces to shape the flow of the theoretical landscape, it always seems to end up best to put a few, extreme-case blocks on things. Certain types of argument -- for example for the racial superiority of one race over others -- are simply discounted and ignored. There is a legitimate debate to be had about what, if anything, defines a person's race, and whether or not there are any differences between people besides minor phenotypic, pretty well superficial discontinuities. But there are certain weapons one simply cannot use in this debate, however open and unabashed we want to be about it, certain argument forms (like "But it says here in this ancient text...") are generally going to be ignored by the scientific community. Of course, such a rule should also always be open to revision, (someone might draw pertinent /evidence/ from an ancient text, for example, even though our rule permits taking it as ... well, gospel) but it is a rule (of sorts) nonetheless, blocking a certain line of enquiry, (tentatively, hypothetically, revisably.)

There are parallels everywhere. I want my children to be raised in an open world, without fear, and in great honesty. But I might not allow just anyone to talk to my children, for example, (if I had any). I might protect them from some few certain influences that might shape their malleable personalities in directions that I consider highly undesirable. (Again, I might as a general rule not allow my children to talk to drunken strangers, but this might not apply to their mother, if she was just a bit tipsy, so the block is flexible, revisable.)

This is the only economic way to run certain systems. Your brain doesn't remain absolutely open to all input, for example. You might think it would be in your vision's interest to be completely "open" to all data it could pick up from the world at any moment, but it doesn't, because its more economical to literally make educated guesses about much of what is going on in your field of vision.

Perhaps the best comparison is to a computer virus. I don't want to allow free flow of information onto my desktop, because some of it is not in my interest, and neither is it in the interest of others to whom I may further transmit the encoded version of mallicious gossip.

In the case of rape accusations, we seem to have completely lost the meaning of the phrase "public interest". It is certainly not in the public's interest in the sense of being to their benefit to hear about these investigations while they're at speculative, early stages, however /interested/ some people may be in those stories, driven by an instinct for gossip. We are biologically and culturally programmed to prick up our ears when we hear gossip about sex, violence and high status members of our clans, and this particular story contains all those elements. The sotry is a virus, culture is its niche, and our penchants for sex, violence and status gossip are the chinks that it exploits.

But its a strange kind of virus, because instead of harming the people who hear it, incubate it, trasmit it on to others, the infected harm the people that its /about/.

I replied:

As I've said, I really find the whole rape angle pretty distasteful. My stance revolves around a deep-rooted objection to censorship of any kind.

Censorship involves making decisions about what other people can see based on principles that are always, at the deepest level, arbitrary and subjective, no matter what they're based upon. I hold that if it's arbitrary, then it has only at most one chance to be exactly right, and an infinite number of chances to be wrong. So it's probably wrong, and so subjective judgements are always flawed, so we shouldn't make them. Given that information dispersal in this situation is effectively free (you need to start making value judgements in real-world publishing, when it's expensive) then total free flow of information is the only way to go. And since at this point someone generally trots out the child-porn argument, I'll tackle it in advance and say yes, even though it's disgusting to me, I'll let it through, because the judgements involved are simply too arbitrary.

Of course, you can still prosecute child pornographers who are making money by distributing or worse, creating this material, but attempting to stop those who are distributing it for free is pointless: people will always find a way. Just as they will with any other kind of information.

Information wants to be free. And knowledge is power. So the more information we have available, the more powerful we will all become. Those who seek to limit your access to information seek to have power over you.

Bob responded with:

You say all value judgements are "arbitrary" and "if it's arbitrary, then it has only at most one chance to be exactly right, and an infinite number of chances to be wrong. So it's probably wrong, and so subjective judgements are always flawed, so we shouldn't make them." As far as I can make out, this is an expression of total relativism, not just of an ethical kind but of an antirealist bent, because you /are/ a subject, /all/ your decisions are subjective. You're saying you shouldn't make /any/ decisions, about anything. I think we can be right and wrong, and that there are very subtle and sophisticated explanations of how we have knowledge, and how we can make decisions. Even "value" judgements of a kind.

As to the argument that we should attempt to cut off child pornography at the source but not act to prevent its free distribution, I think this does show a contradiction in your position. It feels like censorship, because surely all the website owners are doing is propagating images that were already shot. But if child pornography is wrong then simply giving up and saying they will always find a way is defeatist and, also, wrong. There are laws about what you can depict, and surely they -- along with cultural taboos -- help depleat the amount of child pornography. It may be that things we try to disallow will always seep through somewhere, but giving up on this basis assumes that total eradication was the aim, which, as you rightly point out, it cannot be.)

"Information wants to be free. And knowledge is power." You assume that information and knowledge are the same thing. Of course, we could define them as such, and information and knowledge are often used to both mean "correct descriptions of the world". But we can and I think should make a distinction, in this context, between bare organised data (information) and good, corroborated candidates for truth (knowledge). Information is not power. How does knowing that someone has accused celebrity sportsmen of rape give you power?

Ean chipped in:

I think you should really think about what you are posting about the footballers. I don't know about the good ol' U S of A but over here it is innocent until proven guilty. Yes there should be freedom of information but not when it jeapordises somebodies life (I have heard there are already gangs baying for blood, thats before a verdict or even trial). The one thing you will notice is that the girl has not been named anywhere, What if she is making all of this up, what if she is screwing up these peoples lives and all you say is "oh well there should be no censorship." I am sure if somebody was raped in your town and your name was posted as a suspect on a local forum censorship would be one of the first things you would ask for. Really think about it, put yourselves in their position, if they haven't done it how much is this screwing with them, how damaging is it to their family. And then there is the age old adage "mud sticks"

We have recently had a case where a minor celebrity was accused of being a rapist and his name was leaked on a Channel 5 news broadcast, that is the reason for all of the crowd mic's being turned off and all of the TV censorship. Luckily the man accused did not sue channel 5 but he could quite easily have done, the TV companies realise that hence the caution.

And this is the bit where i admit to finding your site by searching for the footballers names so yes i am being hypocritical but i also know that i am responsible for my own actions and know that i am not going to cause trouble, you however cannot rely on every person who reads this to be the same.

I responded outside the comment system:

(This was originally the full body of this post; I have placed it in context rather than duplicating it)

Some really fascinating conversation has been going on in this month's comments (top right, everybdoy; click the bubble). Here is my response to both Bob and Ean's latest comments:

This issue is a conflict of principles. Those "principles" are themselves value judgements; I don't believe that they are impossible, because everything you say about total moral relativism is true. One of those principles is that of innocence until proven guilty. The principle it is conflicting with is that of freedom of information, and it is the latter principle I hold more dear.

Information of this kind can indeed be very damaging; lives can indeed be ruined, as John Leslie's was by those rape allegations (even though he is now profiting from a video-diary series "my year of hell", which seems somewhat callous). I'm not saying that's a good thing. But sacrificing freedom of information for the suffering of a few people is not a fair trade. Making moral judgements about information leads to censorship, censorship leads to political abuse of that power, which leads to suffering for thousands if not millions. Censorship is the slippery slope upon which we cannot step even a foot.

And no, information is not power, and information is not knowledge; my choice of words was deliberate. But information is the soil in which knowledge grows. It does not all need to be the best, it is not always the same, but the more of it you have, the more knowledge you can grow. What knowledge, what power do I gain from knowing these rape allegations? I have two responses:

  1. If this information has given me no power, then what are all these people doing at my site? Why, they seem to be turning up in a hunt for information. The desire in others to seek information is its own power when you have more information than them, just like money is power.
  2. What power do I gain from any specific piece of information? I may know that gravity is 9.8 metres per second squared, but that means nothing unless I know the theory and the equations surrounding it. These allegations may mean nothing by themselves, but in context may reveal something. We shall have to wait and see.

And in the meantime, if anybody comes up with the name of the girl, I will post that too; fair's fair.

(Incidentally, Ean, I'm in the UK, not the USA -- my server is in the USA)

Bob countered with this:

I think our difference, Seldo, hinges first on the "slippery slope to censorship point". I disagree with slippery slope arguments, and I think there's a big ol' world of difference between "censorship" and limiting a few extreme types of "information".

I think the word "censorship" has negative connotations -- it is associated (by connotation only, I accept) with selective reporting for the purposes of evil agenda or to inforce spurious moral norms. And the word "information" has very positive connotations, its something shiney and desirable. But the information we're talking about here is not something that will make people who read it happy, or enlighten them in any worthwhile sense of the word. With my apologies to the Googlers who have found this site, the vast, vast majority of people interested in this story are interested because it contains a killer combination of base media ingredients; non-consentual sex, aggression, high status males, and soccer.

Yes, this is information in a technical, abstract sense of the word, but in any lay sense it is gossip; plain, simple, bile-ful, tabloid-type gossip. Don't get me wrong, it /could/ be interesting: the sociological study of how a group of high status males can collectively rape a single individual, if it were true, or how a single individual could either inaccurately reconstruct in her own mind or lie about events that took place, if it is not. But that's not why people are here and that's why it is damaging.

The point of reducing the "information" in this context to "basely-motivated gossip" is to compare it to the damage it has already done if it is not true, and the damage it may still do. This is not censorship in the full, connotative sense of the word; it is a simple weighing up of liklihoods and the conclusion that in the case of alleged sex crimes any investigation should have passed way beyond rampant speculation stage before any reporting -- let alone actual names -- takes place.

Then to the slippery slope argument. In this case it is "What if you're so-called extreme-case limitations /do/ slip down the slope and become full-blown censorship of the media?" Slippery slope arguments simply do not work. Their form is wrong. It is simply not true that in any general case you can draw an inference from current events to a likely outcome. Imagine these other slippery slope arguments: "Once we start instant messaging its a slippery slope, and soon no one will talk to ayone else" or "If we allow sex education to cover homosexuality the teachers will soon be /promoting/ homosexuality and we'll be educating people in how to be gay". Those are perfectly well-formed slippery slope arguments, and when we hear the argument applied in this way it becomes clear that it doesn't work. You have to argue a very specific case before a slippery slope argument becomes at all feasible, and in this case I think there is a world of difference between a few, utilitarian limitations and "censorship".

(Another reason slippery slope arguments are bad is that if they /are/ correct and we /do/ end up at the bottom of the slope, we often quite like it there. Consider the arguments "But if we allow some of our slaves to go free pretty soon they'll be wanting more rights, or even equal rights" or "If we allow women property rights, pretty soon they'll want to be able to vote." Obviously, this criticism of slippery slopes doesn't apply because I agree that censorship (used to satisfy individuals' agendas or to enforce spurious moral norms) is of coruse not desirable.

So, if there's a challenge here, its this: why should a few limitations -- on poorly-motivated enquiries that will damage the reputation of the accused whether or not they are officially charged, let alone found guilty -- slide down the slope to "censorship" (in my "lay" sense of the word)? Given that we used to have more censorship and we now have less, I can't see how this can be realistically argued. We have moved (in general) /from/ state-controlled censorship to an open press with only a few, catch limitations (although those limitations are doubtless better defined that they were in the past). So why should retaining those few catch limitations send us /back/ down the road to censorship?

Secondly, our difference hinges on your holding freedom of information as an inalienable, absolute principle, or at least as more solid that many others. Unless you're a deontological moralist, principles are only valuable because of the ends they tend towards. If, as I have said, this is a case in which the likely result of the principle in question is negative, (as well as basely motivated,) then this is a case in which upholding that principle is itself damaging. It is for this reason that I don't speak of "principles", only "guides". Again, its largely (but not entirely) a matter of connation, but its too easy to slip into absolutism and rigidity if we try and uphold "principles". If we judge this -- and ever case -- as situationally-specific as possible our actions will be more accurately targetted, the results better, and "principles" irrelevant.

Then ficedula jumped in too:

Slippery slope arguments are always wrong - really? You pointed out, in some circumstances, the predicted consequences DO happen, and we prefer them. Saying "any censorship on the media will lead to total media control" is obviously wrong. However, saying "imposing any censorship on the media will make it easier for the government to impose *more* controls" is correct. You can't go from no censorship to complete control, but you can do it gradually. Dictators rarely go from peasant boy to insane emperor in one day; it takes time to establish controls over a people, which is why it's worth trying to oppose even small limits on your freedom if you feel they aren't justified.

I don't particularly think anybody IS using this story to launch a coup d'etat for the British government - who'd want it? - but I *do* think the government tries to control the media in this country too much as it is, so it's well worth fighting against.

If you're going to prevent people from knowing that somebody's been accused of a crime, because it could be damaging to their reputation, you'd have to make all court hearings private. Otherwise, people would actually KNOW who the defendant was, and that could damage his reputation! And, hey, even if they're found innocent, you'd better still not publish any details - somebody who thought they were guilty despite the judgement could go and hunt them down once their name was published, "XXXX is innocent".

Presumably you don't think that - so where do you draw the line? If you eliminate all forms of reporting that could potentially endanger somebodys reputation (wrongly) or life, then you've just killed 90% of all news, and if you go on to eliminate all forms of news that people don't really *need* to know, they just *want* to, that takes care of 90% of the rest of it. Like Dilbert said, once you eliminate everything dubious from the news, all you get is weather reports.

Finally, you should bear in mind here that the question "should all information be free" is *interesting*, but ultimately irrelevant - all you need is *one* person in another country willing to post news on their website, and that's it - your news block is broken. Unless you can convince every web user in the world to agree with your set of morals, a task worthy of the Orbital Mind Control Lasers, then you're stuffed. Media control can't be done nowadays. Live with it. Just sue anybody (*cough*Daily Mail*cough*) who shows any signs of *inciting* violence or who doesn't clearly indicate the difference between "hearsay" and "substantiated report"; but don't try to stop them reporting on something.

[0] Obscured to hide people's e-mail addresses from trawlers. Extra points for mentioning this as me censoring myself and successfully using it as a brilliant counter-example and a flaw in my arguments.