Response to comments on freedom of information

This is my latest response to a continuing conversation in the comments for this month; please continue commenting into the system, I will export it to the public page.

Bob: you defeat yourself when you say that this story could be interesting in the context 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".

That's not one, but two counter-examples to this case of censorship, which on the surface seems fairly straightforwardly biased towards supressing the information. If it were censored, somebody trawling the web for a dozen or so case studies of group rape (for example) would not have this example to draw upon. If all such stories were similarly censored, they would have no examples to draw upon, and the information would be lost. Now you might argue that the information would eventually become available in an academic context, or via court records, or available on request: but that is simply a matter of degree -- it is still lost to many, many people who for whatever reason would not have access to it, or not even have reason to suspect its existence to request it. This information does have more than one specific, valid, non-salacious reason to be made publically available.

I consider neither your instant-messaging nor your sex-education arguments to be proper "slippery slope" arguments; the term refers to a degree of the same thing.[1] Stopping talking is not the same as starting IM; promoting is not the same as discussing. Who are you, Margaret Thatcher? :-) However, it's not relevant: a "slippery slope" can, as you also point out, slide both ways. Censorsing a little can lead to censoring a lot; censoring less could lead to anarchy. And as you say, often we find ourselves quite liking where we are at the end of slope: and that's true in this case, too -- I want to end up at the other end of the slope. But your essential argument is valid: doing something a bit does not mean we will do it a lot. But I will argue that even a little bit of censorship is too much.

It is also entirely untrue that we have moved into an era of less censorship. In both the UK and the US, both prior to and following September 11th 2001, there have been ever more laws governing what we can and cannot say, and more laws than ever governing whether or not people can sue us for saying certain things, which amounts to censorship, since we fear those consequences. I won't argue that censorship has been uniformly increasing[2], but I will argue that the reason censorship has decreased is because people have fought to make it so. You implicitly agree that censorship is a bad thing, but there should be "sensible" limits to our freedoms. I say that we have no way to judge what's sensible.

Your argument that we should consider each case on its own merits is the one I find most persuasive, as I agree that principles should sometimes give way to reasoned judgement, and that there are exceptions to every rule. But for there to be exceptions, there must be a rule. But how do we establish those rules? In this case, the most reasoned judgement seems to be the one that comes from Ficedula: allow free flow of information, but punish those who use that information for negative purposes -- you are punishing not the distribution of information, but the misuse of that information, which is exactly right: there's nothing wrong with the information per se.

But back to "sensible" reasons for censorship, your main point: in this case, do we have a good reason for doing it? Possibly, but as you yourself pointed out, we have a few good reasons not to censor it as well. We can punish those who misuse the information: we cannot pre-emptively hand the information to those who might have needed, since we don't know who they are yet. The reasons for not withholding the information were revealed by you a few days after I released it: how long might it have taken? I think my position[3] is that we cannot make value judgements about information because such value judgements are impossible. But they are impossible not because values to judge them by cannot exist, but simply because we lack sufficient information to make those judgements. We have no context, no sensible way of predicting what information will be useful, and to who, or when. Therefore it is best and safest to allow free flow of all information: a lot of it will never be used, but those few vital facts we could never predicted would be useful will slip through.

Want a concrete example? How about SARS? Medical officials made a hell over a fuss over China's handling of the SARS crisis: it had been spreading rapidly inside mainland China for months before it reached Hong Kong, but we didn't hear a word out of them until afterwards, and even then their numbers were obviously false. But was this some sinister plan of censorship by the Chinese government, intending to poison their own citizens and shut down their rural economy? What possible cause could that serve? What actually happened -- and what the Chinese government admitted when it issued instructions that it was to stop -- is that at each hospital, and in each district, doctors and administrators were playing down these unusual respiratory deaths, because people aren't supposed to die of pneumonia anymore, so it looks like their incompetence.

Pictured as a whole, these many incidents would have painted a clear picture of an unusual and spreading pandemic. Individually, they were nothing but minor statistical fiddling to meet targets and save face, but as a body they amounted to criminal incompetence that quite literally cost thousands more lives. To paraphrase one of my favourite movies[4], how many deaths do you need? Give me a number, and I won't come back and bother you until that many have died, to prove to you that it is worth battling censorship, no matter how inconsequential it seems.

[1] Correctly formed, they might be: "once we start instant messaging a few of our friends, we will IM all of our friends who are online" which certainly seems to be true, and "if we allow sex education to cover homosexuality, we will soon be educating our children about *all* forms of sexuality and - gasp - they won't grow up with our narrow view of sexuality!" which I certainly wish were true.

[2] Since when, anyway? It's not like cavemen had libel laws.

[3] And I readily admit I am rationalizing an instinctive reaction to allow free flow of information here.

[4] And The Band Played On, a docudrama focussing on the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the discovery of HIV itself. To their eternal shame, the Red Cross and other medical institutions initially refused to screen blood for HIV on the grounds that it was (then) an expensive test to do, and not enough people were dying of AIDS to justify the expense of the testing.