According to an article published last week in Metro.co.uk, the video-sharing site YouTube (owned by the politically left-leaning search engine giant Google) has decided to “ban for the UK only” any video “showing weapons with the aim of intimidation.” Citing “widespread unease about the increase in knife crime in the country,” YouTube claims that the ban is not retroactive. It remains to be seen how such a ban will affect the countless videos on YouTube of shooters firing guns at ranges, or knife owners reviewing their latest purchases. Product review videos, in particular, are quite popular on YouTube, and one wonders just how sensitive YouTube’s UK censors will be in deciding what “intimidates” them.
The significance of this act lies in just what is being legislated. Guns and knives are, of course, very tightly restricted in the United Kingdom, and there are regulations covering print advertisements and publications involving these items. Now, however, an Internet site that does not sell these items and whose purpose is not primarily to showcase them specifically is being censored by its owners to prevent users simply from seeing knives and guns being fired, wielded, or discussed.
The censorship of YouTube in the UK is thus tantamount to the voluntary establishment of thoughtcrime. George Orwell predicted a heavily surveilled, thoroughly controlled, brutally policed England in his prescient novel, “1984.” The government of the UK is working very hard to turn Orwell’s vision into reality. It’s not possible, at least not today, actually to police the content of your thoughts themselves. The next best thing, then, is to prevent you from seeing or reading material that includes the thoughts your government doesn’t want you thinking. That is the purpose of a ban on gun- and knife-oriented video content, where the goal is to combat the UK’s skyrocketing violent-crime rates. Bans on guns and knives, as well as a legal climate that effectively forbids self-defense, have not stemmed the tide – but gleeful UK bureaucrats have now witnessed their nanny-state crusade take a giant leap. In capitulating to the climate of fear and oppression the UK government has helped create, YouTube has attempted to prevent certain very specific thoughts among YouTube viewers in the UK. What could be more true to the spirit of Orwell’s “Big Brother”?
Technology is both vehicle and victim in the establishment of thoughtcrime, by the government or with the consent of the governed. Online portal Yahoo, for example, which is based in the United States, agreed in early 2001 moved to disallow online auctions of Nazi memorabilia, in response to pressure from French activists – but a U.S. federal court judge ruled in November of the same year that a French court’s order requiring Yahoo to block such auctions from view by French Internet users was in violation of the First Amendment. Much more recently, the Communist Chinese government blocked Apple’s iTunes from the entire country of 1.3 billion people, after some 40 Olympic athletes downloaded a collection of songs sympathetic to the Free Tibet movement. (Access to iTunes was later restored, but the offending album was not available to Chinese customers.)
As advances in technology increasingly penetrate, blur and even erase international boundaries, the conflict of cultural and legal standards leads to friction of, yet again, thoughtcrime. One nation’s proud tradition is another nation’s taboo, and these previously coexisted with relatively little contact. Now, however, the two may come face to face in the virtual universe of the Web. The United States’ tradition of freedom of speech, for example, contrasts sharply with the much more controlled environment of Communist China. Even as American and Chinese netizens have more and more opportunity to interact, their governments are eying each other suspiciously over the handlebars of their metaphorical Tron lightcycles. Multiply this potential conflict by all the industrialized, Internet-capable nations of the world and you have the anarchy of conflicting interests lacking a controlling authority. The clamor for such an authority often empowers organizations, such as the United Nations, which have neither the best interests of the United States at heart, nor a respect for the individual freedoms protected in the United States Constitution. What happens when cherished American freedoms like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to keep and bear arms are declared thoughtcrime in certain sectors of the Internet – and rival nations begin lobbing court orders through cyberspace and across national borders?
The Net Neutrality movement is a response to the danger of a technologically inspired and enforced system of thoughtcrime. Net Neutrality is defined as “the guiding principle that preserves the free and open Internet. … [Net Neutrality] prevents Internet providers from blocking, speeding up, or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination. … With Net Neutrality, the network’s only job is to move data – not to choose which data to privilege with higher quality service.”
While this movement is obviously in response to various data management and even censorship policies of major Internet Service Providers, it can be applied to all nations and to policies within nations or across specific national borders where conflicts of content and clashes of culture become evident. To preserve free, uncensored and unregulated access to information technology through the various portals available to us, we must have Net Neutrality. The alternative is a complex web of conflicting regulations enacted by the various nations from which the Internet’s worldwide content is generated. Such a patchwork of unenforceable laws – and the harassment of Internet users and interference with data traffic that would result from nations attempting to force compliance with their standards – would make thoughtcriminals of us all, while interfering with the free exchange of information that is vital to continued technological innovation and development globally.
The irony is that the very technology that gives us ready access to information, and one another, is the mechanism through which we will free ourselves from thoughtcrime, even as we debate who among us is guilty.