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Remember That Filters Allow You To Brew Coffee

The Chinese government's recent requirement that its PC manufacturers add Internet filtering software to its machines has got free speech advocates pretty riled up, and with good reason. But I wonder if it matters, in the end.

The Chinese government's recent requirement that its PC manufacturers add Internet filtering software to its machines has got free speech advocates pretty riled up, and with good reason. But I wonder if it matters, in the end.OK, you've just thrown your hands up and yelled an expletive deleted at this screen, right? How could I possibly think that the Chinese government's efforts at thought control aren't a big deal? I've got two reasons:

First, filters don't filter; people do. No software program can close folks' minds as much as they can (and do) themselves. The ubiquity of information on the Internet has yielded thriving, little walled communities of believers who think global warming is a ruse, UFOs are real, and that America is the Great Satan. Effective thought control is achieved by feeding them the stuff they want to know. One of the most effective, and somewhate frightening self-imposed filters for limiting exposure to content is RSS.

The corollary to this phenomenon is that if people want to learn something, they usually can. Information technology is a tool of liberation; while you can slow it down, you can't stop its transmission. Just ask the Soviets; they tried to ban copiers, so samizdat flourished via carbon paper, and gave birth to an oral tradition that harkened back to the bards.

Second, are all filters bad? A community might be able to agree on content it doesn't want to encounter, just like family. The "slippery slope" argument is no more true on this issue than it is when the NRA argues against every gun law. Maybe it's the fact that we know the Chinese leaders are totalitarian dictators, but at some level, so is the parent who bans her kid's access to Facebook. And no filter works flawlessly (see Point 1).

The fact that the Chinese effort to control Internet content is doomed is a double-edged sword. It's good that they will fail. But maybe it's bad that we do, too?

Jonathan Salem Baskin writes the Dim Bulb blog and is the author of Branding Only Works On Cattle.

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