Blown To Bits

Not a Good Beginning to the Decade for Information Freedom

Monday, January 4th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Let’s see.

1) A cartoonist in Denmark is nearly killed for drawing some pictures of a guy with a beard.

2) In Ireland, a law took effect banning blasphemy. A person can be found guilty if “he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” By that standard, the cartoonist would have been guilty, I imagine. Some atheists are challenging the law; other parties are taking it as a model to be urged upon the U.N. Actually, the UN Human Rights Council had already voted to condemn the “defamation of religions.”

3) In India, just as in China, Google is cooperating with the law by censoring politically objectionable content. In this secular democracy, the line between religious and political speech is thin, and the fears of mass riots are real.

“If you are doing business here, you should follow the local law, the sentiments of the people, the culture of the country,” says Gulshan Rai, an official in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, who is overseeing implementation of the new law. “If somebody starts abusing Lord Rama on a Web site, that could start riots,” he said.

Note the pattern here. The first case would be an easy call for many Westerners, but the other two plainly involve friendly democracies suppressing a wide variety of speech that most Americans would take for granted as constitutionally protected. I wonder if the U.S. is going to become an outlier state in this way also, or if the strong conservative religious forces in the U.S. will start persuading legislatures to chip away at free speech rights in the name, ironically, of respect for differences.

4) On the good-news side, not only does opposition video footage continue to get bootlegged out of Iran, but film-making culture continues to thrive through underground distribution networks.

Will digital control or digital liberty be the more powerful force in the next decade? I’m betting on liberty, but it sure isn’t going to be obvious.

2 Responses to “Not a Good Beginning to the Decade for Information Freedom”

  1. Arvind Narayanan Says:

    I’m from India. The forces of social conservatism/backwardness are so much weaker there than they were just a decade or two ago that it’s almost like a different country.

    Anyway, overall, I’m betting on liberty. Seems like a pretty safe bet to me.

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    Good to know. Thanks!