Friday, July 11, 2008

ISPs Agree to Block Some Content

AT&T will purge all servers containing child pornography Web sites and block user access to newsgroups that center around pornographic material relating to children. AOL, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Sprint also have signed agreements with the state of New York doing the same.
The agreements point to the complicated nature of "blocking," "filtering," "traffic shaping," even anti-virus and anti-spam measures. In principle, most people would likely say they are in favor of "free speech" and therefore "no blocking" of Internet content.

In practice, there are lots of reasons nearly everyone would block some traffic, especially when it is harmful. The carriers have agreed to block some content lots of people think justified. That illustrates the complexity of Internet or other freedoms.

In other cases, as on most college campuses, though most people would say they favor free speech, some expressions of clearly political speech are deemed so odious the claim is made that there is "no freedom" for the expression of the clearly-political ideas, even though the same people might loudly protest other real or imagined threats to "free speech."
More than 40 years ago, in 1964, a "free speech movement" started on the campus of University of California at Berkeley in response to a ban on political activities. We may debate the later consequences, but there's little doubt rights of free speech were involved.

And 40 years later we may wonder how well those concepts are honored. These days, it is not university administrators but students and faculty that sometimes actively move to suppress ideas they disagree with. It is quite a turn of events.
The point, I suppose, is that defending free speech takes different forms in different eras. The term "political correctness" describes the current context within which free speech has to be evaluated. It might be helpful to remember that threats to free speech, historically and currently, have both left-wing and a right-wing sources. I don't think most people think left-wing suppression is any better than right-wing suppression.

I suspect most people think the carriers are doing the right thing. It's a legitimate thing to debate what free speech means in the current era. Strict constructionists might argue the "speech" to be protected is directly political speech, not any utterance, of any sort.

Carriers might take some heat for compliance with New York's rules. But it is the right thing to do. Rights are one thing. Responsibilities are another. Protecting the vulnerable among us might conflict with some notions of freedom.

In Catholic philosophy, freedom is the right to do the right thing. Ability to make a free choice is the issue, not the nature of the choice. Sometimes it might be the right thing to limit some expressions.
That isn't the same thing as blocking specific applications, or classes of applications, necessarily. But that's what makes net neutrality such a difficult concept.

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