TOC My brother's keeper. Censorship laws Your Turn
Congress kills all legislative bills in favor of individual data rights while industry lobbies pay most campaign bills. A pronaocratic quid pro quo or so it seems (see 10/03/06 and 12/19/06 fillips). Only a revolution can restore the spine of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and re-establish democracy (see 5/23/06 and 5/30/06 fillips).

Perhaps to compensate for such inaction, Congress indulges in a steady stream of so called decency laws for the protection of children (1), COPA being one such attempt. Unfortunately a good "information law" is hard to come by (see 3/20/07 fillip). As reports Ian Urbina (*), a federal judge has just struck down COPA as contrary to the First Amendment, the one right which still has might.

Unfortunately the judge's decision provides no operational alternative. Indeed Ian Urbina relays Lawrence Lessig's concern as the lack of a better solution increases our reliance on filters: "People buy filters worried anout pornography, but when they see they can also block sports, politics and lots of other things, so they block those, too."

Aesop has long been known for his tongue-in-cheek dishes. Today the First Amendment protects free speech and by extension the tongue which utters it, leaving no one in doubt of its capability for the worst as well as for the best. If Aesop lived in our Information Age, he would rather serve us filters, either fresh or fried. The best can identify the performer from the music and expose a label as a fake as when last month an iTunes player got fed a pseudo Joyce Hatto's recording (see 3/6/07 fillip). The worst blithely discarded as spam emails to my own patent lawyer because I sent them from a different address, being in Paris at the time. As the patent claims to eliminate spam, Aesop would have savored the tale.

Filters, no matter how good, will make mistakes. It is a fact of life, or rather it is a scientific fact unless truth is defined in the first place to be the very decision of the filter. Thinking otherwise is a common fallacy I denounced last week as the "Prohibition mindset" (see 3/20/07 fillip). Does it mean one should share Lawrence Lessig's concern? My answer is an unequivocal maybe.

From an individual perspective, I cannot live without filtering information. Without it my mind would be drowned by my senses and filter foibles are a small price to pay for focus. When I deal with a correspondent, it is therefore only fair I accept he or she will use filters as well. When communication failure occurs, as it is bound to do, it is up to the two of us to limit and repair the damage. No use to fret about fate.

Communications involving a middle man are another matter. At best this third party acts as a good recommendation mechanism (see 8/22/06 fillip), minimizes the risk created by liars and helps qualify overabundant possibilities. Short of the required degree of accountability and transparency (see 11/07/06 fillip), the third party inevitably acts as a censor. And in a censor's hands, filter errors suddenly take on a rather sinister hue as they multiply the means for manipulation (see 12/05/06 fillip). Let Lawrence Lessig be spared Cassandra's curse, to be right and ignored.

Shifting the controversy from filters to their masters is not an idle proposal for two reasons. One is that by focusing on people, one decreases the dependence on technology, a requirement for writing good laws. In Aesop's tales, the tortoise overcomes the hare but torts at law always deal with outdated deeds. It is not for nothing that the writer of the Sixth Amendment omitted to commit justice to any measurable goal when he gave us the right to a speedy trial.

More specifically, it brings about a solution to censorship. Ensure decentralization and censorship evaporates. This must be carried out at two levels. First every Internet user should have the power to build and enforce their own filters. When an error is made, I prefer my own. Big Brother's slips I take as slaps. Second no third party recommendation scheme should be allowed to become dominant. When recommendation failures are made, they cannot be distinguished from censorship but their impact will be neutralized by actively competing sources.

Take COPA as an example. Assume a law which grants protection to pornographic content providers who ask the age of each of their readers and filter out children under 12. With ePrio's technology, this can be done without anyone having access, let alone collect, user profile information. From a practical stand point all errors will be triggered in one of two ways:

  • lies by a young child about his or her age should put the responsibility where it belongs, i.e. the person or persons rearing the child, away from the legal content providers that COPA orders instead to play Big Brother
  • reckless behavior by outlaw content providers ready to broadcast without filter, e.g. from a failed state. This should give rise to an industry of recommenders whose recommendations would become a criteria of the parents' filters
I see far less difficulty in regulating a recommendation industry to ensure its members' accountability (see 11/07/06 fillip). I am less sanguine in Congress' ability to prevent dominant positions. Some governments are the biggest censor in town. In the United States lobbyists for would be dominant censors pay campaign bills.

Whether it concerns intellectual property or censorship, information is a global force. Do not separate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments from the First. Else you will be compelled to choose whether to let young children's minds be poisoned by smut or to allow Big Brother to become your brother's keeper.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) Court Rejects Law Limiting Pornography On Internet, by Ian Urbina (New-York Times) - March 23, 2007
  • (1) for more information, see Distributing Digital Information in our lecture series
March 2007
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