God Save Us From Our Friends

Call me naive, call me idealistic, or call me arrogant if you will, but I happen to believe that the Internet is the greatest invention ever created for American idealism.

Any time I find a new friend from a nation that’s less open than ours, I get a feeling of excitement from them. When they send me email, when they discuss their web efforts, they say they feel free, sometimes for the first time in their lives. It’s the feeling people describe as “coming to America.”

Why do they feel this way? They feel this way because, perhaps for the first time, they have the whole world of ideas open to them, even ideas they find repugnant. When a Serb goes online, Kosovars and Bosnians are also there, and vice versa.

This is what gives the Chinese government fits. Their continuing efforts to “clamp down” on the Internet remain, to my mind at least, quite laughable. This is why countries like Iraq and Cuba still have minimal Internet access. Acceptance of the Internet (and the free speech it implies) is becoming a requirement for admission to the 21st century, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Tyrants can’t hide when the truth is universally available.

Unfortunately, this means all information must be free, including information you don’t like. I’m not here to argue about pornography or libel, so let’s just restrict ourselves to political speech.

I’m going to come down hard here on people I respect and like, namely the folks at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The group is working closely with LICRA, a France-based group, to “weed out extremist sites.”

Racist and anti-semitic groups in Europe, denied free rant, have taken to registering their sites in the U.S. Wiesenthal researcher Marc Knobel estimated to Reuters there may be 4,000 “hate sites” in total.

The problem with “driving out hate sites” lies in who defines hate. Muslim extremists might brand the Wiesenthal Center as a hate group. China might brand the U.S. Democratic Party as a hate group. The U.S. First Amendment doesn’t make such distinctions, just as it doesn’t make distinctions among religions, and so everyone is free to speak foolishly. I believe that as a direct result of those policies our hate groups have great difficulty in gaining any electoral foothold.

This wasn’t always true, and we saw at that time just how dangerous any government definition of “hate speech” can be. Atlanta, where I live, was terribly abusive of human rights early in the 20th century, when hate groups like the KKK called the government’s tune. But treating the KKK as the KKK treated, say, the NAACP would make a mockery of our principles. Freedom would no longer be a real principle, just a rhetorical one.

The most dangerous statement I’ve seen in years was one that came from Mr. Knobel himself. “If we don’t start cooperating internationally to regulate what is on the Internet the consequences will be serious,” he said.

And if you don’t think it can happen here, please recognize that the dreaded “Communications Decency Act” isn’t completely dead. It is being revived in court by (of all people) About.com, which is trying to rid itself of some moron who pestered its boards with scatological messages.

As a friend of liberty on the Internet all I can say is: God save us from our friends.

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