Censorship is bad for business
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #59

Imagine a country where electricity is forbidden, for it can kill; where fuel is banned lest it explode; where people cannot drive family cars, as limousines are better. Such a country would not last long in an industrial economy. Imagine a country where pictures are forbidden, for they can offend; where news is banned lest it inspire violence; where people cannot watch soap operas as Verdi is better. Such a country might live among smokestacks, but wouldn't last long in a knowledge economy.

After several years of diplomatic wrangling, governments have finally agreed, at least in principle, to free trade in industrial products. But they are a long way from even considering a free trade in information, one that removes restrictions on its distribution across borders, and also on its production and consumption within them. For trade in information is concerned with not only the financial capital that supports it, but also the idea flux - the freedom, flexibility and ease of creation that propel it.

There is something about the flow of ideas that frightens those in power. Those who benefit from and in some way control it seemingly have a sway over the soul of a country. This assumes, incorrectly, that a country has one soul. Instead, it has millions, but the economics of past media favoured broadcasting - in print, through cables or on the air - with its homogenizing stream of mass-produced dreams. But new technologies bring new economics, and the decreasing importance of broadcasting parallels the increasing irrelevance of controls on cross-media or foreign ownership, and quotas for local content. These only apply to the corporate behemoths of the information business; the threat to the single soul comes from elsewhere.

The invading hordes of cyberspace are individual people, small companies, non-profit organizations - whoever found it hard to reach their audience, often others like them, through broadcasting. They distinguish themselves by the diversity of their ideas, which are often at variance with the mainstream. They thrive on freedom, and cause the dynamism that makes the information economy so different from its predecessors.

This freedom and diversity are the chief victims of most government restrictions. Whether they control who owns information's producers, an instance of misguided patriotism everywhere, including in the USA - or the content that is distributed, a speciality of Europe - they severely slow down economic potential. Worst of all though is the Asian favourite, censorship, where instead of being freedom's protector, the government becomes its prime threat. It is no coincidence that it is poor India that is the region's most exciting information market, rather than richer Singapore, Malaysia or China. The last also has more people, but is hardly a model of freedom; India on the other hand has possibly the freest press in Asia apart from Japan and Israel, and doesn't ban satellite dishes.

Some governments are slowly learning that they can work with and not against the idea flux - such as surprising Singapore which, having dived head-first into the Internet, has resigned itself to countering words of evil with those of state-sanctioned good. And Germany, which doesn't quite support its western neighbour's quotas for local content, and has seen 'global culture' MTV threatened by an unaided, unhindered German music channel.

Ideas will, despite barriers, ignore geography. Their flow will, despite controls, drive the knowledge economy, if necessary underground. Governments can't prevent this from happening and their attempts to do so will handicap their countries - but they can accept that, with information as with the trade in goods, freedom is for the best.

  • Electric Dreams Index
  • dxm.org Homepage