We Can Handle The Truth

A friend criticized publication of Ander Breivik’s photo:

On July 25, the Globe published three handsome photographs of Anders Breivik under the headline “Norway suspect admits ‘facts’, not crime”. By doing so, the paper has elevated an extremist mass murderer to a position of relative glamour. I can only imagine how this choice of photos might encourage other potential killers to start shooting innocents — so they too, can get their images and crazy messages on the front page, even if it is below the fold. Bad choice.

My response was different:

I don’t agree with censorship.

Breivik committed a heinous, monstrous crime. But he doesn’t look like a monster. He could be a Gap model. One could pass him on the street or sit next to him on the subway and not be uneasy–until he opened his mouth. He was able to kill so many on the island because he called them out of hiding, saying he was there to protect them from the shooter. Obviously he was able to establish some trust because he was dressed as a policeman, but I expect his benign appearance helped convince others he was not a monster. His appearance is part of the story. Even if it were not, I’d want to know who did this thing.

From what we know his murders were driven by a lethal mix of ideology and mental illness. He’s acknowledged that he killed the victims but denies criminal responsibility because the killings were “necessary.” He’s written thousands of words explaining his fears of immigration, Islam, cultural mixing. The media is reporting his beliefs and their connection to the ideology of right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups. He killed because he was obsessed with these ideas. Other potential killers are far more likely to be similarly obsessed and motivated by ideas than by a desire to get their pictures in the paper. Should the media not report anything about these racist and murderous ideologies because doing so might inspire others to kill to promote their obsessions? I’d rather expose the hatred at the heart of these beliefs to public scrutiny.

Breivik is one of the most prolific mass-murderers in recent times. The scale of his shooting rampage is unprecedented. Should the media not report the number of victims because other mass murders will try to top it?

If the press censors every fact that might motivate, inflame, or inspire others to engage in similar acts, then what’s left to say? “In some place and at some time something really bad happened. No pictures, facts, or other information at 11.”

I agree with Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

If a Sapling is Cut Down as Soon as it’s Planted . . .

One form of Chinese censorship is to block searches for “sensitive info” such as Tiananmen and Falun Gong. If a web post is made in a forest and no one can find it, does it convey information? Another is to scour domestic websites for sensitive info such as Tiananmen, Falung Gong, –and Google, and instruct webmasters to delete it.  Around the time that Google stopped censoring Chinese search results and began referring Chinese searches to its Hong Kong servers

[]he Chinese State Council Information Office . . . ordered all news sites to “carefully manage the information in exchanges, comments and other interactive sessions” and “clean up text, images and sound and videos which support Google, dedicate flowers to Google, ask Google to stay, cheer for Google and others that have a different tune from government policy.”

Playing the China Card

In a speech a few weeks ago Hillary Clinton criticized China and other nations for their Internet censorship, warning that what she called an “information curtain” might prevent the citizens of such countries from the free flow of information.  Her speech came shortly after Google reported it was the victim of computer hacking that it believed originated in China, announced that it would no longer censor references to the Tiananmen Square Massacre and other taboo topics from its Chinese search engine, and said it might withdraw from China altogether.  Clinton said “[i]n an interconnected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all.  Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.”  China responded the next day, saying “the Chinese Internet is open” and the U.S. should “respect the truth and to stop using the so-called Internet freedom question to level baseless accusations.”  Most interesting to me was China’s characterization of “[t]he American demand for an unfettered Internet” as “information imperialism:”  “[t]he U.S. campaign for uncensored and free flow of information on an unrestricted Internet is a disguised attempt to impose its values on other cultures in the name of democracy.”

One might dismiss China’s rhetoric but this diplomatic fray involves a fundamental problem of Internet governance, which is whose law should apply to resolve Internet disputes? In the U.S. we often regard First Amendment rights to speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition as the manifestation of natural human rights that are fundamental to human dignity and liberty.  (That is, we often talk about First Amendment rights in such terms.  In practice we are woefully ignorant of the scope of legal protection these rights.  Legislatures, with little apparent awareness, pass laws that violate the First Amendment, citizens urge legal sanctions against unpopular ideas, and religious fundamentalists denounce non-believers.)  We believe benighted citizens of nations without free-speech traditions await liberation.  That may certainly be true, but it is not inevitably, universally true.  Imagining how we would react as a nation if another nation prosyletized about its superior beliefs can help one understand China’s reference to information imperialism.  Indeed France has been saying much the same thing for years about the effect of American language and culture on French culture.  I am not defending moral relativism.  I believe that transparency and the free flow of information are better politically, socially, economically, and ethically than secrecy and censorship, but we cannot impose those values and expect cultures in which they have no foothold to embrace them at once.

Hacking the Great Firewall

In Who Controls the Internet Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu describe the Internet in China as a “national intranet, ” an internal network with carefully-monitored connectivity to the rest of the world. Chinese refer to it these controls as the “Great Firewall of China” and, as described in this story, are starting to rebel. Opposition to government censorship is manifested in lawsuits–the article mentions a breach of contract suit against China Telecom “because of the service provider’s unacknowledged restrictions on Web content–, technological work-arounds, and a growing network of activists who share tips on evading network controls, oppose censorship policies, and support one another’s protests. In the predictable never-ending escalation of tactics between censors and hackers the Chinese government is trying to ratchet up its control but according to activist Yuan Mingli “[t]hat’s impossible, fundamentally, because people’s hearts have changed . . . [the system will] “eventually break down precisely because China cannot be completely disconnected to the outside world anymore.”

Yahoo’s Grumpy Shareholders

Yahoo’s shareholders made clear their “discontent” and “disappointment” with Yahoo’s performance at the company’s annual meeting. The first rebuke that caught my eye concerned a proposal “to adopt a policy that opposes censorship on the Internet,” which only 15% of shareholders approved. That fared better than the proposal for a “committee to oversee Yahoo’s human rights practices,” favored by 4% of shareholders. While I was tempted to write a headline along the lines of “Yahoo to Chinese Political Dissidents: Kiss Off!”, I’m guessing these votes reflect disenchantment with Yahoo’s 10% decline in stock price over the last year more than a pro-political repression platform. After being approved by 97% or more of shareholders last year some of the directors received as few as 66% of the votes at this year’s meeting. According to The Wall Street Journal “approvals with only two-thirds of the vote could be considered a victory for shareholder activists who have condemned high executive pay at the company,” specifically Yahoo CEO Terry Semel’s $71.7 million 2006 compensation. Still, shareholders also rejected a pay-for-performance proposal that would have bestowed bonuses only when Yahoo outperformed its industry peers.

The shareholders also rejected the chicken a la king and chocolate cake served at lunch. A bad day for the board, all around.