Banning books from the Internet shelves

17 November 2014
17 Nov 2014
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

In a little book called Tuck Everlasting, the narrator begins with an interesting question: if a man owns a piece of land, how far down does that stretch? If I own the land under my house, do I own that piece all the way, down to the center of the earth? Probably not, but if so, is there a certain depth until which everything is under my possession? The idea of ownership, as easy as it may seem in a mine-yours situation, is actually quite complicated. And if you think property ownership is odd, you haven’t experienced the weird wonderland of intellectual property rights. It’s one thing to say some item, like a piece of land, a book, or a pair of shoes belong to me, but things get very complicated very fast when you start applying the same logic to less concrete things. Take this website, for example. Everything on this website is clearly my property, right? But what if someone takes a picture of this website and writes about it on the internet? Is that picture mine or his? If an arranger takes one of my songs and re-writes it for a band, is that arrangement still some part mine? Can information even be owned?

The Internet is in very many ways an information heaven. It’s absolutely effortless to take one piece of content and redistribute it to other places, or to share and consume content from the other four and a half billion Internet users. But the way in which information is shared over the Internet isn’t actually as transparent or as simple as it appears to be. For one, there are more players and mediators in the information flow than you can count in both your hands and feet. If someone clicks on a link to this post, it needs to first pass through a set of computers that each “route” the information to go out where it needs to. Then the ISPs (internet service providers) like Comcast*, Metronet, and Time Warner regulate the data that pass through their servers. Then it flows through yet another set of routers, possibly controlled by governments or organizations, through another ISP, and back into your device. If all these ISPs and organizations did was allow information to pass through efficiently, the Internet really would be a public place for sharing content. But in between my computer and yours, the information that I share has to go through an arbitrary number of filters and hoops. Some are designed for surveillance, others for genuinely beneficial purpose like antivirus software, and yet others, set by these ISPs to prevent certain content from being sent through their system. I only want to address one kind of filter in this post, though, and that’s the kind designed to purposefully filter out certain information from reaching the audience. Censorship.

Censoring content through the Internet happens in a variety of scales, from silencing entire nations (as was the case with Egypt and, to a much lesser extent, Turkey with its temporary Twitter-block) to blocking out certain websites within a school’s or company’s Wi-Fi network**. But in all cases, censorship is the act of blocking access to information purposefully, and I don’t see why some people view that as a solution to any problem. Imagine, for a moment, a library that belongs to a school. The library has a few thousand books and newspapers, covering a wide range of topics. But one day, the school decides that some students are not liking the way their school is run. In a flash of genius***, the school concludes that these students are not conforming to the schools’ decision because they’ve learned from certain books that there are better ways of learning and teaching than what’s currently happening at school. Hence, the books that propose better ways of learning are banned.

That’s an incredibly raw analogy, but is it really far from the truth of the matter? It’s also worth noting that censorship isn’t something that’s exclusive to the Internet. It occurs frequently in literature and many parts of education, though for some reason it’s less frowned upon. My lack of access to a certain piece of information doesn’t mean that I’m now stopped from ever coming up with that same information in some other way. Stopping the information from reaching people doesn’t mean you’ll wipe out forever the existence of that particular idea. Unlike material things, ideas can’t be wiped off the face of the earth. For example, the fact that I am not taught to have faith in a certain religion in school doesn’t mean that I won’t ever believe in it. In fact, I’d argue that it goes further, to make me closed-minded as well. Perhaps the most annoying of all, the fact that I can’t read books about sexual relationships and drug abuse at school does not mean in any way that I am “saved” from learning about these things. It just makes it harder for me to learn about the world as it is, because now you’ve put a filter between me and the world.

I’ll give you an example. Most of you have probably heard of The Fault in Our Stars, a young adult novel by John Green. It’s a story about cancer patients and how they grapple with the raw truth of mortality. (It’s pretty good, you should check it out if you haven’t already). In one particular school district, the book has apparently been banned from its libraries, because “they didn’t think the sex and talk of ‘mortality’ and ’terminal illness’ was appropriate for the 11-13 age group.” Maybe there’s some truth to it; it’s possible that some people may have a difficult time finding the core ideas about death and life in the story. But I’m still curious: why are these students kept from reading this novel? When someone has trouble solving an equation in math, you don’t just go, “Ah, forget it, you don’t understand it. Since I’m worried about confusing you about algebra, I’m now forbidding you from ever learning algebra until you reach eleventh grade.” That’s not helping him at all; you’re just preventing him from learning.

“Censorship” is just a pretty, decorative term for what really is spreading ignorance. The idea of blocking information to create benefit is rooted on the idea that “ignorance is bliss”. Flaws of wildly generalized expressions aside, I don’t think anyone benefits when we aren’t given the choice to decide what information we can access. You can have your piece of land over there, and I’ll have my garden over here. Even if you think your land won’t be any use to me, don’t fence it off. It doesn’t help anybody.

* Don’t even get me started. Comcast and its ridiculous customer service policies are an entire year’s worth of posts on its own, and I guarantee you none of them will be positive. But let’s not go there for now.

** Seriously though, why are URL shorteners, Facebook, Wikipedia, and StackExchange all blocked within my school’s network? I can’t imagine a single way in which those websites are more harmful than random Google searches.

*** Sarcasm alert…..

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