Nashvillians who attempted to access Google or Wikipedia on Wednesday may have experienced a shock.
Wikipedia shut down completely for 24 hours, while as I write this article Google's name is blacked out on its front page. Both companies are protesting Big Brother-like intrusions on their services. China’s government recently forced Google to either censor content or stop providing services to users, so we may infer that Google — whose informal company motto is “Don’t be evil!” — is trying to persuade our government to choose freedom of speech over turning the Internet into a China-style electronic Gulag.
When George Orwell wrote his most famous novel, “1984,” he never envisioned a world in which billions of "commoners" could get together, compare notes and criticize their governments’ policies and actions. This ability of everyday Joes and Janes could be a very important thing — perhaps the most important thing — if people around the globe want to gain and/or preserve individual rights and freedoms.
But dictatorial governments need to suppress the truth, which means suppressing freedom of speech, assembly and dissent. So the question becomes: will our increasingly dictatorial federal government continue to strip us of our rights and freedoms? If so, then like China and Iran, it will have to suppress the truth, which means denying us the ability to assemble and dissent. And of course the single biggest and far most active place of assembly and dissent today is the Internet.
Google and Wikipedia are protesting two bills currently before Congress, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House.
According to Google, "Millions of Internet users and entrepreneurs oppose SOPA and PIPA" because the U.S. government could "order the blocking of sites using methods similar to those employed by China. Among other things, search engines could be forced to delete entire websites from their search results. That's why 41 human rights organizations and 110 prominent law professors have expressed grave concerns about the bills. Law-abiding U.S. Internet companies would have to monitor everything users link to or upload, or face the risk of time-consuming litigation. That's why AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo and Zynga wrote a letter to Congress saying these bills 'pose a serious risk to our industry's continued track record of innovation and job-creation.' "
Our government is constantly chipping away at, and eroding, our constitutional rights and freedoms. Which is more important: protecting the rights of 300 million law-abiding American citizens, or turning the Internet into a Gulag in order to reduce piracy? Do we deny American citizens the right to travel because somewhere in the world a few pirates are running amok? Do we need Big Brother to put cameras in our bedrooms and bathrooms, to scan constantly for pirates? What about our right to be presumed innocent, and the right of organizations like Google and Wikipedia not to intrude on their clients’ privacy?
An important plank in the foundation of modern civilization and law is the idea that protecting the rights of the innocent is more important than apprehending and punishing the guilty. So we should join Google, Wikipedia and the Occupy Wall Street protestors and "just say no" to politicians who insist that we need their "protection" when what they're really offering is a Mafia-like protection racket.
Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary” at www.thehypertexts.com.