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Letter To The Editor

*UPDATE*: This letter is on the Korea Times’ website! It might even be in the newspaper today, though I won’t get a chance to check until tomorrow…

Here’s the published letter, which is under Thoughts of the Times.

From the BigHominid’s Hairy Chasms a nasty stench was emitted, which was regarding this opinion piece in the Korea Times, by one Choi Tae-hwan, who, as the Hominid describes, “expresses the wish for greater control and surveillance of the Internet”.

I got annoyed enough to actually write a response to Choi’s opinion piece. I’ve sent it to the editor of the Korea Times, in the hopes they’ll give a differing view some airtime, but anyway, the text of my letter is now presented for your gratification.

Censorship, Paternalist Disdain, and Civil Society as an Alternative

Recently an English teacher named Choi Tae-hwan wrote an editorial in this newspaper about Korean Internet culture, in which he called for stricter controls of Web content in Korea. Citing examples of “harmful information”, he calls for the creation of a “filtering system” to ensure that Koreans can enjoy a “healthy internet culture”.

The problem with this (unquestionably well-intentioned) call for stricter controls, for demands of filtering and of responsibility, is, of course, the question of who makes the decision of what gets filtered? Who is responsible for the nation’s freedoms in viewing information? Who decides what is harmful, and according to which agenda? And what happens when a precedent of censorship is introduced?

These questions aren’t unique to Korea, of course. Even in America, the self-declared bastion of freedom of expression, the Bush Administration has taken unprecedented steps in marginalizing public criticism by establishing “Free Speech Zones” far from where Bush’s public appearances occur. This would embarrass Americans if they knew that similar techniques have been used in authoritarian states as reviled as Communist China (for example, in the sanctioning of the Democracy Wall in the late 1970s).

As in China today, many netizens in Korea circumvented the recent (and technically inefficient) ban by using proxies, anonymous redirectors, RSS feeds accessed through various content aggregators (as well as other techniques, I’m sure) to view many completely innocuous English-language webpages abroadpages which had been rendered inaccessible for no comprehensible reason, assumably because it’s easier to ban a whole domain than a few files or specific pages with links to those files. The blockage was inefficient for two reasons: it restricted access to non-target web content, and it also was easily circumvented. This suggests something webmasters elsewhere have known for more than a decade: nerdy Internet aficionados will always find a technical workaround for every barrier erected by bureaucrats, who often understand policy well enough but can’t efficiently carry it out because they usually know less about the technology than your average teenager.

When America experienced its first period of Internet-anxiety, discussed by Bruce Sterling in his book The Hacker Crackdown, the same kind of bureacratic inefficiency resulted in the banning of all kinds of files, seizure of servers, and even the confiscation of game products that posed no conceivable danger to the Internet, the public, or even to business interests. The American government, which didn’t understand what it was dealing with, ended up looking foolish for its mistakes, and also piqued interest in many potential young hackers; after all, public interest in anything is increased most powerfully by an attempt to suppress it.

But workarounds and backfirings aside, what Choi’s probably well-intentioned call for greater control represents is actually an expression of distrust, disdain, and contempt for the public. Censorship is dangerous because it is instrumental in the control of the range of public debate and knowledge, and it allows control of which knowledge reaches the citizenry. Throughout the developed world, this is implicitly understood to be harmful to democracy. The distrust of anyone (in government, business, or any other sector) who acts to control information is not strictly a Western confection: it’s absolutely an essential component of a working democracy in any culture; and the more critical the public, the more responsibly the government will need to behave.

When people begin speaking about the need to “filter out” what they deem “harmful” information or “junk”, one wonders what else is being filtered out, and what kind of harm they are seeking to “protect” citizens from. Are the citizens all mere children? Are they unable to think about the information they access, or make responsible decisions? I may be mistaken, but when I read Choi’s patronizing suggestions, I get a strong feeling that this is exactly his opinion of the public. I find that statements like his are profoundly insulting to the nation in general; they imply that public opinion must be “handled”, that citizens themselves are presumably too ignorant or gullible (or perhaps even too stupid) to separate “junk” from useful information.

I believe such disdain for the citizenry is mistaken in general. But even if it were true, what ought to be fostered is not stricter control of information, but rather a more educated, empowered, and vocal civil society. Choi says that “it is difficult to create a healthy internet-based discussion and negotiation culture”, but difficult as that may be, it unarguably exists among English-speakers in many venues on the Internet. However, this culture was not created for citizens. It was created by them, and even the trash that permeates the electronic landscape has served a very useful purpose, giving the public grist for the mills of debate and discussion. The resultant type of civil society may not obey its government unquestioningly (but then again this rarely happens anywhere); however, it will be a society that will make intelligent decisions both at the keyboard and at the voting booth, ensuring a robust, healthy democracy and nation.

I urge Mr. Choi and others to consider these issues carefully and rethink their attitudes towards the public and censorship.

Gord Sellar

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