TOC Censorship in our Times: Locke or Levianthan? Your Turn

News sources should abstain from being the story. But there it is. Tom Zeller Jr. recently reported how the New York Times censored itself to prevent Internet access by British readers to news about their own country (*). If one had wanted one more example to justify my fillip on The Airport Syndrome, there it is.

To dispell any misunderstanding, I will be quick to point how perfectly natural the Times editor's decision happened to be. Via Internet, the New York Times conducts business in Great Britain. "On advice of legal counsel" the editor found British laws against "prejudicial information" required to withhold this article about criminal defendants within the territory covered by such laws. This is only sound caution from a responsible businessman. On the Chinese market Google did the same thing when it introduced degraded services earlier this year "as a way to avoid potential legal conflicts with the Chinese government" (1).

The very normalcy of the case is frightening. As part of its surveillance program, will next Her Majesty's Government kindly but firmly request communication of all personal profiles accumulated by the New York Times on its British readers? If I inveigh so often against advertisers, lawyers and governments, it is because Bigger Brothers get together, complicit in using and sharing personal profiles held in their data bases in total disregard of the data rights of the individuals concerned (2).

Normal, geographic censorship may be. It is nevertheless plagued by three potential issues:

  • hypocrisy:
    who believed at the Times that this attempt at self-censorship was going to be effective when interested British readers could just search the Internet for uncensored copies? As far as I know Great Britain is not nor intends to be, North Korea with its totalitarian control.
  • stupidity:
    as a French national with an eye on Internet usage, I once attempted to interact with the site of Ségolène Royal, a contender to the French Presidency. First I had to register and give my email address, a request often made to help debate moderators. Having been rejected not once but several times, I surmised that my computer Internet address (IP) betrayed I was a US resident and took advantage of a trip to Paris to apply again through a French Internet service provider (ISP), successfully this time.
    Does Ms Royal discriminate against expatriate voters, a preposterous supposition, or did her webmaster chose to check on geography because it was possible, though hardly relevant?
  • obscurity:
    I profess to know more about the Internet than the average user but I must admit that I do not know the exact details of geographic tracking. During a registration on Ms Royal's site, what is taken into account? The IP of one's computer, the ISP hosting one's email address? Could have I registered from Paris while giving my US email address? Could I have registered from the US by calling my French ISP? Does the New York Times look up cookies to ascertain its readers' place of residence? How does it deal with its own advice on how to hide one's identity (3)?
    When organizations come to rely on covert and unreliable mechanisms to follow a law endangered in practice by modern technology, it undermines the very objectivity of the law.
Yet such issues pale in comparison to the real stake: what do we want the Internet to be?
  • is it to be like a public place, under the omnipresent monitoring of some Leviathan (4) lest society succomb to chaos ?
  • or is it to be like air, a medium to enable communications between responsible individuals, subject to local laws ?
No doubt governments favor the first approach. In this Hobbesian view the Internet significantly enhances the ability of man to propagate lies and plot evil. Individual users' rights are therefore trumped by the State's duty of vigilance.

Following Locke (5), I happen to find the second proposal more congenial to my taste and more likely to gather the users' consent. Not that I entertain any illusion on finding truth on the Internet. Indeed people habitually lie out of greed but don't they lie even more out of fear? And as responsible individuals go, I do not mean that individuals always act responsibly but that they are to be held responsible for their actions.

Going back to the problem faced by the Times' editor, what would change under the perspective I advocate? Not the British law nor the duty of the New York Times to respect it as far as its business is concerned. Only the manner in which it is upheld on the Internet.

Imagine for a moment a world where individual eprivacy was taken seriously. The New York Times would then be deprived of the means to take the law into its own hands. How can you censor a truly anonymous reader! Such reader however would have no right to access the Times' information at will just because it happens to be on the Internet. This would require a "negotiation", i.e. a mutual verification of relevant profile characteristics but without granting anyone access to the profiles concerned.

In the instance, the "negotiation" would check that:

  • the article comes under the scope of British law, as established by the Times' editor
  • the reader is not subject to British law, as declared by the reader him or her self
To enforce responsibility, the "negotiation" would further require this reader to give the New York Times a personal code, issued by a legitimate third party. If a legal proceeding against this reader ever made it necessary, it would thus be possible to obtain the corresponding personal code from this third party and, with this id, to verify whether this person had read the article in question. Were the person a British subject, the judge could draw the logical conclusion.

Internet users could hardly complain. An appropriate implementation (see 8/15 fillip) could make it impossible to go from activity to identity. But justice could still go from identity to activity and users would have to live up to their lies when found. Having one's access to Internet curtailed in proportion would be one sanction worthy of the offense.
Meanwhile total confidentiality would relieve the New York Times of any active duty as a foreign government agent, a slightly disreputable role for one who defends so vigorously the liberties of its readers at home.

Is this an utopia? Not from a technology perspective, given ePrio's technology. But very much so from a behavioral point of view. To quote Tom Zeller, "Richard J. Meislin, the paper's associate managing director for Internet Publishing, said the technological hurdle [to enforce censorship] was surmounted by using some of The Times's Web advertising technology."

How could the Times resist governments? It first needs to challenge its own advertisers! Time for another Glorious Revolution?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*).....Times Withholds Web Article in Britain, by Tom Zeller Jr. (New York Times) - August 29, 2006
    • (1) Google Cuts 2 Features for China, by David Barboza (New York Times) - January, 2006
    • (2) Education Dept. Shared Student Data With F.B.I., by Jonathan D. Glater (New York Times) - September, 2006
    • (3) How to Digitally Hide (Somewhat) in Plain Sight, by J.D. Biersdorfer (New York Times) - August, 2006
    • (4) Authored by Hobbes, Leviathan has become a metaphor for an authoritarian state
    • (5) Locke stressed consent of the governed and the right to rebellion against illegitimate powers
September 2006
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