Thoughts on mandatory Internet filtering

by Karl Auer

  1. Censorship is wrong in principle. The reasons scarcely need to be repeated here (though they should be repeated to people that forget them).
  2. Optional filtering is not censorship. It's someone making a choice about what they want to hear/read/see etc. Only imposed filtering is censorship.
  3. Censorship imposed on people unable to make an informed choice (e.g., the young), is still censorship.
  4. From time to time, some censorship is necessary for the public good.
  5. Censorship "in a good cause" is still censorship.
  6. Any censorship must meet four standards to be acceptable, and each of the four is equally important:
    1. It must be transparent; any competent citizen must be able to know what has been censored[1], who made the decision[2], and the reasons for the decision;[3]
    2. There must be direct recourse for the censored and the censoree;
    3. There must be a very solid[4] public good reason for it; and
    4. It must be temporary, requiring renewal or review (preferably renewal).[5]
Any issues of functionality ("it won't work") are largely irrelevant. They affect in any case only point 6(c), unless the censorship takes a destructive form like bookburning, which affects at least 6(b-d) and probably 6(a).[6]


  1. Some process is needed to achieve this; if anyone can access all censored material whenever they like, then it defeats the purpose of the censorship. An appropriate process also ensures that a person wishing to judge a censored item for themselves does so after giving informed consent to any potential damage or distress that they may suffer as a result. It also implicitly identifies the person seeking access, which will discourage those seeking the material for its own sake. Under such circumstances, refusing a competent adult who has clearly expressed an informed wish to take responsibility for his/her access is indefensible.
  2. This is necessary to allow hidden agendas, conflicts of interest and the like to be detected. Those making decisions must, like any other public servant, know that they are able to be held personally responsible for their actions.
  3. This is necessary to ensure that standards are applied consistently, and to ensure that decisions are documented. Both these prevent wilful or capricious decisions, or allow them to be detected if they occur.
  4. The degree of public good has to be commensurate with the damage that censorship does. That is, to do something as drastic as imposing censorship in a democracy, a merely good reason is not enough. It must be a very good reason.
  5. It should not be difficult to uncensor something. In fact, it should be an automatic process. It should be (relatively speaking) difficult to keep something censored.
  6. "It won't work" is a good argument when deciding where to spend money though. Money spent on policing is way more effective than money spent on censorship. This would be true even if the censorship worked perfectly.

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    Page last updated 19 July 2010