Friday 26 November 2010

Internet censorship

The Serious Organised Crime Agency has asked Nominet, which runs the .uk namespace, to formulate a policy on the suspension of domain names (effectively closing sites) when law enforcement agencies advise them that sites are being used for criminal purposes. The option under consideration is to incorporate new terms in the contracts between Nominet and other parties. Details of the Nominet discussion, and information on how to submit views, are here:

Sometimes, it may be appropriate to close sites at the request of law enforcers. But there is a huge danger that this would develop into a power of censorship of extreme social, political or religious views. The police must never, ever, be given such a power. Even the courts' powers in this area should be either zero, or very very limited.

Here is the comment that I sent to Nominet. I encourage all friends of freedom to send in their views, too.

Dear Sirs

I write to comment on this proposal.

It is sensible to have a clear policy on this topic. But it is essential to distinguish between four sorts of site, to which law enforcement agencies might object.

First, there are scam sites that imitate banks and shops, in order to steal account details or take money without delivering the goods. Here, there may be a case for Nominet to act on police advice, without waiting for a court case, although Nominet should certainly look at the site to determine whether it really fits into that category before acting, and I would question whether they really could not get a court order for the specific purpose of closing the site first.

Second, there are sites that improperly make copyright material available, or in some other way breach intellectual property law, or that make things like child porn available. I suggest that there will always be time for the police to seek a court order to close sites like these. That may delay closure by a few hours, which will cause further harm. But the harm done by allowing the police to get sites closed without going via the courts would be greater.

Third, there are sites that are being used to facilitate terrorism or other violent crime, by being used to send messages between conspirators. (I assume that discussion fora sometimes get used like this.) Here, there may be a case for urgent suspension, but probably only for a few hours while the police arrest the conspirators. Suspension long before arrest is unlikely because that would tip off the conspirators.

Fourth, there are sites that express extreme political, social or religious views, or that give general advice (as for example , which was recently closed down at the request of the police, and soon afterwards reappeared).

It would be totally unacceptable for Nominet ever to close down such a site at the request of law enforcers, without a court order. This is so, however extreme the views expressed.

If law enforcers could close sites like this, it would hand them a huge power of censorship. Of course they would promise not to abuse it, but future law enforcers might well abuse it. The power would also lead to self-censorship, as people moderated their comments for fear of provoking the authorities into asking Nominet to act.

So as far as this fourth category goes, the only acceptable policy for Nominet to have would be that it would always reject requests that were not in the form of court orders.

Kind regards

Richard Baron

Saturday 13 November 2010

Money and the humanities

There is much debate in the UK about the proposed increases in tuition fees that are charged to undergraduates. This has been intertwined with a perceived threat to the humanities. Courses in the natural sciences cost a lot more to teach, but they will continue to attract direct taxpayer subsidies. Tuition in the humanities will not be subsidised in this way. So courses in the natural sciences and in the humanities may end up costing individual students much the same.

The perception of threat comes from the perception that the withdrawal of tuition subsidies reflects a Government view that the humanities are not worth subsidising: that their study is a private good, not a public good, so that those who want to pursue that study should pay the full cost themselves. It is natural to see that as reflecting barbarism in Whitehall and Westminster.

I do not think it is pure barbarism. Rather, the new Government is faced with some very tough spending decisions, and there will be casualties. But if serious cultural loss is to be avoided, something will have to change. Are there ways of conducting study and research in the humanities, which will make study and research affordable to individuals, without requiring so much support from the taxpayer, and which could be used more widely than at present? And would such a change have advantages of its own, independently of the question of cost?

We need to start by setting out the important goals for the humanities (these are goals for the sciences too, but the subject of this post is the humanities). Three strike me as covering most of the ground:

the advancement of the disciplines through research;
dissemination of the fruits of the research;
the provision of a liberal education to large numbers of people.

In all three of these, it strikes me that there is a strong element of public good. The achievement of the goals benefits society at large, not just the people who participate in the achievement. (In contrast, the ability of specific individuals to make a living out of research or teaching is an exclusively private good, or very nearly so.) I do not see any need to base the claim to public good on any effects beyond the disciplines, for example, the effect of making us better able to criticize our current social arrangements. There may well be such benefits, but we are on safer ground if we point out that it is part of being human to deepen our understanding of ourselves, and that this demands the advancement and dissemination of the humanities. The practice of these disciplines is part of our nature. It is what we must do. Utilitarians can be brought on side if we point out that a liberal education, which should continue throughout life, is one of life's greatest, and in Millian terms highest, pleasures.

So can we achieve the goals more cheaply?

On dissemination and liberal education, there are plenty of new opportunities to make lectures and written material available over the Internet, and several institutions are doing just that. We just need to put structures of courses and assessment around that material. We have the models of the University of London International Programmes and the Open University, plus several online colleges, although the ones that exist now are of variable quality. This approach would not be as good for a student as being together with professors and other students in a physical university, but it might not be much worse. And it would make it feasible to extend higher education to even more people than at present.

On research, the essentials are good libraries, access to online journals, and seminars and other fora where people can submit their ideas to criticism and learn from others. It would be possible to provide these things outside the context of a university burdened with heavy institutional costs. Again, there would be some loss, but not a catastrophic loss. The important thing would be to ensure that any loss was in the quantity of output, not in its quality. Quality control cannot be enforced outside an institutional context. (It is not always clear how well it is enforced inside such a context.) But quality can still be recognized, and can be the subject of comment. It is pretty clear to the experts in a discipline which authors who work outside institutions are worth reading.

I therefore think that there is scope for a partial (but not total) reversal of the professionalization of research in the humanities that we associate with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, without serious loss to the disciplines. And this might have advantages. The independent scholar is beholden to no-one, can choose his or her topics without reference to what others in the field think should be studied, and can take time to get a piece of work right, unhurried by a requirement for an institution to publish a certain amount each year. There is no money in that life, but those who really care about their subjects will not mind adopting modest lifestyles that can be sustained by jobs that leave time for other things. We should support researchers right across the humanities out of taxpayers' funds. But if their number must shrink, we should adapt. There is no need either to fear, or to drift into, a new dark age.