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Equation and what it may mean for us
Censorship, Stagnation, and the HD-DVD
The recent outcry over Digg.com's censorship of posts containing the HD-DVD code shows that libertarian values are alive and well on the Internet. That said, the political background to the incident shows how powerful pro-censorship forces have become.
These forces were on full display during the Janet Jackson Superbowl incident and the ABC airing of the movie "Saving Private Ryan." So called "family friendly" groups made a concerted push to prevent ABC from airing "Saving Private Ryan" during primetime, because it included an utterance of the F-word. Amazingly enough, there was a real question as to whether a private corporation would be able to show a war movie containing a curse word during a period of time in which our country is actually at war. The Janet Jackson incident was even more powerful. One nipple caused both houses of Congress to leap to raise indecency fines by 10-fold.
Despite the incredible reaction to these incidents, however, neither of them display our willingness to censor in quite as impressive a fashion as our approach to copyright law. The U.S. Founding Fathers recognized that some copyright protection was necessary to ensure that people had adequate incentive to innovate. That said, they also recognized that new innovations are built upon old innovations, and that copyrights should be limited so that innovation can continue. They even spelled this out in the U.S. Constitution - expressly stating that patents and copyrights should be for a limited period of time.
That said, thanks to a bill that the Republican U.S. Congress passed by voice vote in 1998, that was signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, copyrights now last for the life of the author plus 70 years, or for a total of 95 years in the case of corporate authorship. Had these rules been in place since the founding of our country, we could still be paying royalties on copyrighted material created during the Civil War. And, since the U.S. Congress has repeatedly chosen to extend copyright protection, rather than let some copyrights finally expire, it's likely that even these limitations won't actually be applied.
In recent years, technological advancement - particularly Internet file-sharing - has made copyright owners even more concerned about protecting their creations. This fear, combined with new technology, has lead to hardware and software modifications that increase the cost to the consumer of copyrighted goods and sometimes impose limitations on even fair uses of the material. In addition, there is a movement to levy a sort of tax on the sale of copyrighted goods to compensate the creator for the illegal use of their creation - even though many of the buyers may not plan any illegal action.
Given the power of the pro-censorship forces, and the demonstrably weak political muscle of fair-use and freedom of information advocates, one has to wonder if we should be concerned about being on the brink of an age of censorship - one that would restrict innovation and retard advancement.
To answer that
question, it is necessary to divide the censorship forces into two constituent
groups. The first groups are the copyright owners. These people
(and corporations) are concerned with profit, and their primary reason for
promoting censorship is so that they can milk as much profit as possible from
their ideas - rather than allowing anyone else to do so. Clearly they've
achieved some success (the almost permanent copyright), but they've also had
many failures (their attempts to impose software and hardware copy protections
on consumers have been routinely defeated by those who care to try). That
said, these groups do not oppose innovation - they merely oppose innovation that
they can't make money from. And, while these groups probably do add a
slight drag to the pace of innovation, as of yet, the free-market system has
minimized their negative effects.
The second group are the extremists who censor ideas that they don't agree with. Abstinence-only education exists because of these people. The 2005 campaign against companies that said "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" was drummed up by these people. The debate over teaching evolution in public schools is only an issue because of this group. So far, this group hasn't manged to impose more than cosmetic censorship in the U.S. That said, similar groups have made great strides in censoring ideas in many parts of the world (much of the middle-east, China, Russia, and even Europe - witness the ban on head scarfs in French schools, the British proposal to arrest people based on the likelihood of them committing a crime, the prison sentences for Holocaust denial in Germany).
It's harder to quantify the danger from this second group. They frequently stand in the way of technological progress and increasing material wealth - and those are hard things to successfully stand against. Furthermore, they are rooted in intellectual dishonesty (censoring contrary ideas), which ought to be a weak foundation for a movement. That said, such movements have achieved extraordinary success in many times and places, and these movements have recently been on the rise in many parts of the world. In fact, material wealth and consumerism may even fuel these movements - which may mean that advancement creates the backlash that halts advancement.