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The walls are still up

February 8, 2013

The internet has not put an end to censorship, as enthusiasts once asserted it would, or even reduced the prevalence of censorship.  In part, this can be attributed to the fact that the internet is remarkably eager to censor itself.  Sometimes such self-censorship arises from a desire to avoid confrontation with the law.  In an attempt to prevent legal claims and forcible seizures by the state, websites implement restrictive policies intended to prevent them from being sued or charged with a crime based on the actions of their users.  Sometimes, however, censorship is a purely political decision made by a site’s mangement for their own reasons.  As a highly commercial concern, Google is particularly attentive to the claims made by entertainment firms regarding their copyrights, and so will remove challenged content from its network without even giving its users the chance to oppose the removal.  Facebook, reflecting its ambitions to become social media’s least common denominator, presenting only that which is the least offensive to the greatest number, indiscriminately censors everything from the blatantly illegal to the mildly debatable to the completely inoffensive.  In no case, when a user of a major website has decided that he wants to share something with the world, is he guaranteed the ability to do so.  The website reserves the right to override his decision, censor his contribution, and shut him up.

The solution to the censorship problem is decentralization.  As long as control over the existence, accessibility, and distribution of information remains centralized on servers, censorship is a simple matter for the websites that control those servers.  A peer-to-peer network removes this difficulty.  Information distributed among many individuals is far more difficult to restrict or control.  The enormous success of the first major peer-to-peer system, the BitTorrent file sharing protocol, demonstrates how such a network can thrive without censorship or even central guidance.  Now the developers of the Diaspora social network are going a little farther along the road to decentralization and building a social media interface that lives on distributed private servers instead of central ones.  Eventually Diaspora, or a system like it, will grow into a fully peer-to-peer network, in which the servers disappear completely and all data is hosted on personal computers.  Other, similar, networks will emerge at the same time.  A peer-to-peer stock exchange, for example, involving only buyers and sellers and capable of conducting private trades in a regime free from regulatory interference.  Or a peer-to-peer marketplace, without management-imposed restraints on what may be bought or sold within it and without fees.  And in due course all these separate networks, along with staples such as an email system and a search engine, will be integrated into a single, simple, lightweight interface.  Such an interface will turn every computer into its own fully self-sufficient node on the internet.  No single unit will have any control over the overall flow of information, just over which information it alone makes available to the network as a whole.  At that stage, with power over information in the hands of individuals and not websites, censorship will begin to decline.  Providing, of course, that the interface has been designed to allow the flow of information without restrictions.

Is there, perhaps, more free access to information and more sharing of ideas going on, even with a censored internet, than there was before the first internet protocols were created?  Of course.  Is that good enough?  Absolutely not.  Nothing but a completely free interchange of information should be acceptable to the rational mind.  “To suppress a fact is to publish a falsehood.”

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