Censoring the Internet

September 18, 2006

Late last month The New York Times ran a lengthy update on the investigation into the alleged plot by jihadists to plant bombs on transatlantic airliners. Since the suspects are British subjects and the case is being handled by security services in Britain, the story was of special interest there. British readers would normally see it either in the Times’ sister paper, the International Herald Tribune, or on the Times Web site.

Not this time. The Times withheld the story from the British portion of the Herald Tribune’s press run and from Internet users accessing the Times Web site from Britain.

“On advice of legal counsel,” the Times announced on its site, “this article is unavailable to readers of nytimes.com in Britain. This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial.”

The Times’ decision brought to mind a previous instance of Internet self-censorship. Early this year, at the insistence of the Chinese government, Google, Yahoo and MSN tweaked their search engines to make it impossible for Chinese users to learn about such sensitive matters as the pro-democracy movement of 1989, the Tiananmen Square repression and the dissident Falun Gong religious group.

The Internet giants were roundly criticized. But how do their actions differ from the Times’?

Some people suggest they don’t. On the Web site Empire Burlesque, independent journalist Chris Floyd asks: “Who needs the KGB or the Stasi if the media watchdogs of a ‘free country’ willingly snap the muzzle on themselves and lie down whimpering, thumping their tails at the boot heels of power?”

So what should the standards be? The options range between two extremes. One would argue that local restrictions should be ignored. If information of interest is in hand, it should be made public, even if doing so violates a country’s laws or customs. Whoever controls the channels decides what goes on them.

The other extreme would be a blanket compliance with local restrictions. That seems respectful enough. But it also implies that if some revolting dictatorship insists on keeping its citizenry from hearing that its army is slaughtering dissident villagers, we’d just block out that unwelcome news. “What holocaust?”

Neither extreme seems right. No blanket policy can work, whether it’s one of blithely overriding national rules, which would be arrogant, or blindly obeying them, which would be cowardly. Much as media managers hate this prospect, they’ll simply have to exercise judgment, and weigh the facts carefully.

What distinguishes the Chinese and British situations are the details:

First, the blackout in Britain is temporary, only until the courts have ruled. It’s still significant, but unlike the Chinese, the Brits aren’t demanding that momentous historical realities be cleansed from the national memory boards indefinitely.

Second, the harm done by the embargo is a matter of legitimate dispute. I believe that public justice demands that the operations of the courts and investigative agencies be subjected to constant scrutiny. Hence, I would have run the story, but nobody’s being massacred or is dying of starvation because The Times didn’t. Plus, I have to respect the British determination to let their criminal justice system work, rather than locking up suspected terrorists in secret prisons and denying them due process.

Third, there’s the matter of reasonableness. I believe the constraint is unwise, but I’d have to agree it’s reasonable. Intense publicity can hinder the justice system. It can also prevent miscarriages of justice.

(It’s possible that the official claim that they wanted to ensure impartial justice is a fig leaf, and the real concern was to keep flaws in the investigation from being exposed. If the Times suspected as much, withholding the story to avoid legal reprisal was wrong.)

Finally, British law is subject to public review and amendment. London, after all, is home to the Mother of All Parliaments. Hence, its press constraints have a legitimacy the edicts of a dictatorship cannot claim  and a lifespan British voters are free to shorten.

The problem of reconciling freedom of information with national laws is emerging as a signature issue of the Internet. One irony is that the information system is so porous that restrictions may have little effect. With minimal ingenuity British readers were said to be ferreting out the forbidden Times story. In that regard, it remains to be seen whether the collapse of national barriers to unwanted information will, in the final analysis, be such a good thing.

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