30 December 2008

The road to hell

In the final chapter of Terry Pratchett's Eric, the wizard Rincewind and the boy Eric are climbing out of hell on steep steps.

He looked down at the broad steps they were climbing. They were something of a novelty; each one was built out of large stone letters. The one he was just stepping onto, for example, read: I Meant It For The Best.

The next one was: I Thought You'd Like It.

Eric was standing on: For The Sake Of The Children.

"Weird, isn't it?" he said. "Why do it like this?"

"I think they're meant to be good intentions," said Rincewind. This was meant to be a road to Hell, and demons were, after all, traditionalists.

mrs_lovejoy.jpgPay attention to the Prophet here: For The Sake Of The Children is a good intention. And it leads to hell.

The minister in the UK who is the equivalent of Conroy in Australia, Andy Burnham, has proposed a mandatory age rating of websites. He wants the US administration to cooperate. His next comment is important, for it shows the "For The Sake Of The Children in all its glory:

“If you look back at the people who created the Internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that governments couldn't reach,” he said. "I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now.”

Governments have always hated the free exchange of ideas outside their control, and European governments more than most have a history of restricting the right of free expression. Sure, some people express things that are malign and illegal. When they do, they should be prosecuted under the law. But it is nobody's right to tell me what I may or may not say or think, and it is no government's right to evaluate in private what I say and determine if I have the right to say it. Even if the present party in power is benign and well intentioned (ahem), which is always a very bad assumption, what is to keep the next one from misusing this power to control speech? Have we learned nothing from the past two centuries?

In particular we should be careful of the For The Sake Of The Children ploy. It leads to witchhunts where 19 year olds who sleep with 17 year olds get listed for life as pedophiles and sexual offenders. It leads to censorship of anything that upsets influential religious figures. And it leads to a loss of freedom. Others overseas agree.

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