France, China, and Turkey have been in the news this week with wrongheaded attempts to handcuff the Internet. All three countries are trying to use regulation to control what they see as Internet-fueled damage to society. Sadly, all three countries are likely to find that the regulations are at best ineffective, and, at worst harmful.
The case in France is most disappointing, because France is a European country and shares in the West's tradition of protecting free speech. "A new law in France makes it a crime for anyone who is not a professional journalist to film real-world violence and distribute the images on the Internet," writes The Associated Press. The stated purpose of the law is to curb a new fad called "happy slapping."
Don't be fooled by the cute name. Happy slapping isn't a harmless fad, like some 21st-century Macarena. Happy slapping is the name for gangs of youthful thugs committing assault on innocent people, videotaping the results, and posting the video to the Internet.
The French law bans any Internet depiction of real-world violence. It goes much further than controlling happy slapping. It would make it illegal for a citizen-journalist to film the riots that plagued France recently or to post videos of police brutality. Under French law, distributing the Rodney King video would be illegal to all but professional journalists.
The law is a bad idea because it restricts people's rights to shine a light on violence. Video is a compelling demonstration of abuse, far more so than description or eyewitness testimony.
Moreover, it's mighty convenient for police to have criminals videotape their crimes, providing compelling evidence for a jury to convict them. And it's even more convenient for the criminals to post the videos to the Internet, saving police the trouble of having to go out and get the videos themselves.
Apparently, nobody's ever seen The Music Man in China. That nation is seeking to stem the tide of Internet addiction and juvenile delinquency by banning new Internet cafes for a year. There are 113,000 Internet cafes and bars in China.
If Internet addiction and Internet-powered juvenile delinquency are problems in China, the nation needs to fix the problem at its roots, by providing education and healthy outlets for teens. Putting a moratorium on new Internet cafe will have no impact at all, and will just drive the delinquents elsewhere.
I'm sympathetic to the problems faced by France and China. Gang violence and wasted youth are real problems, and, while the solutions are bad ideas, the two nations are to be commended for trying to address the issues.
Turkey, on the other hand, is just being dumb. It's got its knickers in a twist over there because the Greeks are posting video to YouTube deemed insulting to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. The solution is, of course, to ban access to YouTube.
"The video that prompted the ban in Turkey allegedly said that Ataturk and the Turkish people were homosexuals," according to the article linked to above. "Insulting Ataturk is a criminal offense in Turkey." In other words, Greeks are employing schoolyard name-calling. The proper response to such attacks, as any Pee-Wee Herman fan knows, is to respond, "I know what you are, but what am I?" But Turkey figured that mobilizing the resources of its government was an even better idea.
All three of these laws restrict free speech. All three laws limit citizens' access to the Internet, and to limit access to the Net is to limit access to information.
Free speech is a fundamental right that all human beings should enjoy. That's not just a local custom in the West. Western nations are the most advanced in the world, and the West also is where free speech protections have the deepest roots. That's no coincidence. Societies thrive when their members are free to share information, criticize, and demand improvements.