Since I’m already censored in a lot of places, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about censorship even before the whole WikiLeaks thing exploded. I gave a short, 5 minute talk summarizing my thoughts on the matter tonight at Noisebridge’s 5 Minutes of Fame. Here’s a video of my slideshow presentation along with a transcript. (And here’s a PDF.)
A synopsis, followed by the video and its transcript, is below:
Recent Internet censorship stories such as the WikiLeaks saga have surprised some people, but not sexually vocal Internet users, who have been the unsung vanguard of anti-censorship efforts for many years. And this is true even if their content contains less skin than the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, as in the case of the NYC Sex Blogger Calendar. Nevertheless, straw-man arguments are routinely used to marginalize people who publish controversial material. Thankfully, since copying is a creative act, it can be used to directly combat the destructive act of Internet censorship.
Hi, my name’s maymay. I’m a sex blogger, and a sexual freedom activist, and as such I get censored online more than I think is fair. So I had some ideas about that and I wanted to share them with you.
So, here’s the premise. Let’s imagine you have something to say and you want to say it. No problem: you get a blog and you publish it. But this simple activity presumes that on the Internet, all content is created equal. Or, as ever so famously phrased, “In our world, al the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits.” Beautiful.
But is it really the case? If it were, non-controversial content like this would be pretty much the same as controversial content, perhaps of a political nature. Of course, we know that content is not all treated equally. And last week we saw a dramatic re-enactment of what that looks like.
Wikileaks faced all kinds of attacks. A lot of people were surprised that this kind of arbitrary censorship happened but to sex bloggers like me it was no surprise at all. In fact, the more sexually vocal you’ve been online, the more likely you are to have seen this coming. Here’s a few examples.
PayPal freezing WikiLeaks’ account came as no surprise to the folks who published the NYC Sex Blogger Calendar, who have had their PayPal account frozen and their funds seized not once, but twice, before they decided to ditch the service way back in 2008! And just last month, there was a big hoopla over Amazon’s initial defense of, then banning of a “Pedophile book” from their virtual shelves. Interestingly enough, Amazon initially said it wouldn’t pull the book because that would amount to censorship. Eventually, Amazon capitulated to public pressure and, of course, now the book is gone.
Amazon’s conflicting actions with regards to the pedophile book and Wikileaks should teach us 2 very important lessons. First, that censorship can be social just as much as as it can be technical. And secondly, that sexual speech will always be in the vanguard of anti-censorship efforts, and thus sexual speech will always be censorship’s initial–but never its last–casualty.
So here’s how we can frame the censorship versus free speech problem: On the Internet, even if your content may not be illegal, if you can’t find anyone to host it, link to it, or bill for it, it may as well be. To bring this back down to an Earthly example again, if Assange is a “terrorist,” not a journalist, then Galileo was a heretic, not a scientist, and that, since I’m a “sex” blogger discussing sexuality a lot online would make me a “pedophile.” Of course, we’re none of these things.
Nevertheless, we’ll all get called these things because, in the words of national security blogger Maximilian Forte, “The real ‘insurgency’ is the one being fought at home. To the state, every defiant citizen is a terrorist, in mind if not in practice.” So let’s look at how this is playing out in the Wikileaks case, just very briefly.
When governments started censoring Wikileaks, copies of the cables started popping up on mirror sites. At first, only a hundred or so. But within a week thousands. This happened for one very simple reason: the Internet is a copy machine. Since digital copying is so inexpensive, combating Internet censorship is as simple as copying and distributing the censored thing so censorship itself becomes increasingly expensive. But to do that, even today, you need supporters–you need humans.
As Dan Gillmor explains it, “WikiLeaks is the beneficiary, in this respect, of a wide swath of support from people who will make it part of their life’s mission to help prevent this particular instance of censorship from succeeding. How ready or able will they be to defend free speech every time it’s threatened in the future?” Okay, that’s great for Wikileaks, right? But what about me? What about you?
Right now, if I wanted to go publish something I had to say, I’d go to my own website, publish there, and then whatever I published would get pushed out to any number of other sites. Note that pushing the content to the other sites creates a copy.
But what if I first went to a remote site, published there, then had my own site pull that content back? There are already some ways to do this, so at first it didn’t seem like a big deal, but I wanted to see how far I could stretch this idea.
So I started experimenting at one of my own sites, KinkOnTap.com in this case. Here you see that a blog post I wrote actually came from Delicious.com, originally. I never had to go to my site to publish the post; I wrote it in Delicious and my site copied or “pulled” what I wrote from there.
Then I started experimenting with other tools all over the place. I wrote in Google Reader, copied over to Facebook, other feeds, and so on. I even enrolled other people to write so that no single user account was adding content into the copying machine.
The basic idea turned out pretty powerful: publishing first-class content elsewhere meant that my own website wasn’t the only place where my content was, which meant censoring my site itself wouldn’t do much good in terms of stopping my content from reaching others’ eyes. Moreover, censors would have to block a service provider, which means they’ll upset a whole lot of “legitimate” users who’ll want the block removed, too, regardless of their feelings about my content since they just want to use the service, for instance Delicious.
So that’s where I’m currently at with all of this. But if you’ll indulge my idealism for a moment, maybe the ideas herein can be amplified in the realm of the currently-theoretical.
Recall that being able to copy cheaply is what makes censorship expensive. Copying, in this model, is essentially an embodiment of the expression of free speech. Moreover copying is nonviolent, that is, it’s a creative, not a destructive, act. I think this is an important nuance because, as John F. Kennedy says: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
In other words, the cheaper you make it to create rather than destroy, and perhaps the more copying is inextricably tied to publishing, the more nonviolent social change will be. So, with that in mind, what if…?
What if in order to download a web page, you had to serve one? What if in order to have someone host your blog, you had to host someone else’s? See, the thing is, everyone cares devoutly about their own freedom of speech, but it’s the other guy’s that’s important. What if something like BitTorrent wasn’t for file swapping? What if it was a web server? To “say” (or publish) something, you’d have to let someone else “say” something, too. And would you gag your enemies if it meant gagging yourself?
So, these are just some ideas I’ve been playing around with. I made a space some months ago to brainstorm ideas like this, mostly myself right now. It’s at InternetNonviolence.org. I’d love it if you joined me there to talk about all this stuff. :)
Thanks very much.