Free speech, what does it mean?

As, once again, the nanny state is in the news with Cameron wanting search engines to block specific search terms. That is, of course, crazy, especially as people like google already remove listings for child abuse images when they are identified.

But once again it raises the issue of censorship of the Internet.

To be clear here - I am against censorship of the Internet and in favour of free speech.

I feel strongly that free speech is so important that even the cries to censor "just to stop child abuse images" or "just to stop terrorists" do not justify censorship.

I am however forced to consider what free speech means and why I feel so strongly.

Even though I sucked at history and politics at school, some key messages got through. It is clear that governments want to control their citizens somehow. Some control, and some laws, are good for all, but it is easy to see how that can get out of hand. How control to limit the minority that are not able to work well in a society becomes control of everyone just in case. We see it now, even in a free western democracy that is the UK. We see laws that seem hell bent on making us all criminals for no good reason. We see policies aimed at surveillance and control justified without any proportionality, just with emotive topics like "child abuse" and "terrorism".

I wonder if Randal Munroe can do one of his brilliant statistical comics comparing the number of laws in the UK on various topics with the number of arrests and number of convictions and number of people affected. I bet some legislation would stick out like a sore thumb.

So, if free speech is important, what does it mean. What does a concept of "free speech" mean in practice. And I have personally given this much thought now. I have not gone off and read lots of philosophy on the matter, or even read 1984. I am just trying to work out what it means to me, exactly.

I think I have some kind of answer. The idea is that communication itself should not be "wrong". It should never be an offence to communicate, as such. However, things that are wrong that inherently require or use communications can be an offence.

To try and illustrate what I mean, the classic "shouting 'FIRE!' in a crowded theatre" scenario. Apart from the fact that it probably does not have any impact without some supporting factors (like smoke, flames, or other people running), the theory is that doing so could cause panic, injury, and inconvenience which is wrong and so should be punished. The counter argument is that you are restricting free speech if you are not allowed to shout 'FIRE!' in a crowded theatre.

So which is it?

Well, I think the answer is simple, it is not the speech, not the shouting itself, that is wrong. After all, if there really is a fire and it has not been detected, then it may be considered exactly the right thing to do. So clearly the "speech" is not the issue. That is fine. It is what comes behind it. If a person shouts 'FIRE!' in a crowded theatre when no fire so as to cause panic and injury and inconvenience, then it is that action - the "doing something intended to cause panic and injury" action that is wrong and should not be allowed, not the speech itself that is wrong.

This sounds like a very subtle distinction, but the difference does have an impact. If the speech is always "allowed" then you can never condone gagging people you let in to the theatre as a solution. You have to tackle the actions people take and the intentions they had, not the means of communication itself. If we truly had free speech we would not be allowed to gag the pirate bay or child abuse images at the ISP level.

When you get to child abuse images, you are picking a topic so far at the wrong end of spectrum it is hard to say anything against cries for censorship without being seen as a supporter of something repulsive and wrong. But I really do not feel that the communications or even possession of the images should be the issue here. It is the abuse itself that is the problem and needs stopping. Bear in mind, as the law stands now, a badly drawn cartoon could be seriously illegal to have in your possession even though its production caused nobody any harm, and even if it was produced with no intention to be a child abuse image or endorse or encourage such. We have already pushed this in to the realm of "thought crimes" and perhaps not actually done enough to tackle the underlying issues of abuse.

The current political comment focuses on stopping what? searching for images, not on stopping abuse of children - are we missing the target here? Nothing being proposed adds any more to hinder those abusing children or those that are able to access such images (like they use google to find such images?!?!). All it does it pander to the cries of "something much be done" without really doing anything to help.

The problem is that it is a call for censorship, and that is bad. We need open communications in the world to keep governments in check. The second we go down the road of censorship we are opening Pandora's box. This is not speculation as we have seen it - filters put in place only for IWF blocking of child abuse images are (as far as I know) already being used to block alleged terrorist sites and by civil court orders to block sites alleged of encouraging copyright infringement. Something so far from child abuse images you could not get - copying material for personal use is (as far as I know) actually legal in some countries, and even here it is often a matter of a civil wrong justifying damages, and not an actual crime - yet the same systems designed to stop only the most heinous crimes is being used to stop something considered "OK" by a lot of the population and even some whole countries. It shows how these things get distorted - no system will ever stay as intended, no matter how pure those intentions are.

Thankfully we still have an environment that allows an unfiltered ISP even if major ISPs are bullied. One day we may find that is not the case, and all Internet access will be censored. Who controls the censors - well, that information will probably be censored - the IWF list is, for example, confidential. Of course, in such a world, there is a slight irony: Because of the laws on child abuse images there are encrypted secret networks used by those wanting to find child abuse images (as I understand it) - so they will be the only ones without a censored Internet. The law abiding citizens are the ones suffering censorship.

Out of interest, I wonder if the politicians have stats for how many children suffer child abuse to create child abuse images, and how many children are actually killed by cars. I would bet the latter is massively more significant yet somehow searching for cars on google is allowed.


  1. Regarding your fire analogy, the reason that governments don't like laws that require the prosecution to show intent is that it's very difficult to do in situations where no element of pre-planning is required.

    The result is a law where no-one will ever get convicted.

    But please don't take it that I support censorship. I don't. And it doesn't work.

    1. Many laws do cover intent, and laws that just work on simple provable facts are easy laws to make, but not necessarily good or fair laws.

      That said, I prefer to know exactly where I stand, and it would help if more laws were based on simple facts, but also fair and sensible.

  2. "But won't someone think of the children?" is the cry we hear.

    I am thinking of the children. I want mine to grow up in an environment where what they choose to see or read is not limited by the whim of some faceless individual or government body. I want them to be educated to know what is good and bad and why some things can be either, depending on circumstances. With censorship they never get to see what someone else deems 'bad'.

    To follow up on your car comparison, that's a demonstration that freedom has a price, often paid in blood. Society, by some collective mechanism has decided that in order that we are all free to drive within broad limits, a certain number of casualties are acceptable. We all hope that someone else pays the price and have the belief that it won't be us, but we accept that price because we want to be able to move around freely in our motor vehicles.

    Another one is the airport security circus. We accept what goes on because it gives the illusion that something is being done even though it's only checking for what happened last time, and much of the real work of preventing terrorist attacks is done by people far removed from airport security lines. Occasionally something bad happens, the perceived risk increases and the balance shifts for a while and we have to strip off and suffer more inconvenience before flying, but as the memory of a threat recedes, we object to those extra measures and they slowly drop into disuse again.

  3. Sent to my MP and AMs - I'd encourage everyone else to do similar:


  4. > "like they use google to find such images?!?!"

    Of course they don't. However, both the BBC and Macaroon seem to suggest the killers of April and Tia simply googled for the stuff (with the implication this would be trivially stopped...)


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