Thought Crime

In one way the Internet is science fiction. It forces us to re-examine our assumptions by placing them in a new context.

Most Americans have grown up believing there can be no such thing as a “thought crime.” We were warned against it in George Orwell’s “1984.” For those of you who slept through high school English, the novel’s main character, Winston Smith, begins to think that the lies he is writing for the Party are lies, so he must be brainwashed back to the party line. His thoughts are his crime, but when thinking becomes a crime, Orwell is saying, the result is always tyranny.

Orwell’s idea is more radical than it seems. In fact, the U.S. itself didn’t really reject the idea of “thought crime” until the 1960s. Before then, movies were censored, and even before that, the “Comstock Law” kept unpopular thoughts out of the mails, First Amendment be hanged.

Vladimir Nabakov’s “Lolita,” and its film treatment, seemed to put the lie to all of this. Neither law nor custom could prevent Humbert Humbert from consummating his desire for his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The fact that his thoughts were forbidden made them irresistible.

The U.S. is heading back down the path of “thought crime,” starting with bans against “simulated” child porn that are now going before the Supreme Court. The scope of the law is very limited, but its advocates admit that they hope banning simulated images of child sex keeps people from thinking about it. (For the rest of this column, try not to think about pink elephants.)

The case may be of interest, but on the Internet the First Amendment is just a local ordinance. Nearly every country bans a far wider range of thought than what is contemplated here. In particular, a lot of “hate speech” is illegal in much of the world, and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson wants to extend those bans to the Internet.

Many countries have been trying to do just that. France has moved against Yahoo’s auction of Nazi-related material and pushed the U.S. portal into imposing new fees on all auctioneers to pay for enforcing a ban on a market that is legal here. China wants to protect its Internet users from a host of nasty thoughts, including anything that “harms the reputation” of China or hurts reunification efforts with Taiwan. (The bans cover one-sixth of humanity and the fastest-growing Internet market.)

The point is that when you use technology to cross borders and create a borderless world, you threaten everyone’s assumptions of what should be legal and illegal. When we accept local barriers to content, we also accept local barriers to thought. When we oppose all thought control, on the other hand, we give voice to every unspeakable evil of which mankind is capable. And when we try to impose one order on this chaos, we face choices none of us feel capable of making.

It is a brave new world, indeed.

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