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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Time to burn the Net?

4 October 2017

At various times throughout history, people have sought to burn books containing ideologies, facts or stories with which they did not agree.

Book burning is indeed a form of censorship and censorship is a very dangerous thing. In effect, censorship is one group of people saying that their beliefs, preferences and perspectives are more important than another's. It is knowledge elitism.

But of course now we have the internet and a great deal of the information that was previously disseminated in print is now delivered by way of bits and bytes which can be cast onto the screen of any computer, tablet or smartphone with a few gestures or keystrokes.

So how do you burn an eBook or a website containing content that is deemed to be worthy of consumption by fire?

Most of us with any tech-savvy know that it's simply not possible -- but it seems that this isn't about to stop idiots in power from giving it a go.

It's interesting to recall the early days of the Net and the total lack of any controls over content. Child pornography, bomb-making information and a raft of other stuff that was already deemed to be illicit in print, was readily available via a computer and a modem.

It seems that those in power figured that "this internet thing" would never amount to much and therefore they could ignore the geeks and their keyboards.

Oh how wrong they were!

These days every man and his dog is online and, as we all know, the Net is in the process of replacing newspapers, TV, radio, books, magazines and just about every other form of communications.

So *now* "those in power" have decided that it's time to start burning virtual books -- because there are so few paper ones to set afire.

This morning I spotted a couple of "virtual book burning" stories within minutes of starting my daily news trawl for subject matter to write about.

The first was one which reports that the UK government could imprison people for merely looking at terrorist content.

Yes, that's right, repeatedly referring to material that is deemed to be "terrorist content" could see you thrown in jail for up to 15 years.

How crazy is this? Well let's see, in the UK, almost 2,000 people die every year as a result of "bad driving" -- but the maximum punishment for such an offense is just 14 years, and that's if you actually kill someone.

By comparison, up to 15 years for simple reading stuff online does seem a little OTT, especially when comparing the number of UK residents who have died on the roads in the past decade with the number who have died as a result of terror attacks.

The next story to catch my eye was one relating to the allegedly copyright infringing Sci-Hub website.

A US judge has recommended that the courts force ISPs and search engine operators to block access to Sci-Hub.

This time it's not fear but commercial expediency which has prompted another call for eBook burning and, on the face of it, one might expect that this would be justified by copyright law. However, given that there have already been US-based court cases won against the site, the fact that Kazakhstani authorities have taken no action to enforce these cases it is clear that the laws involved perhaps do not apply in that part of the world.

There is also the fact that many see Sci-Hub as being a good thing for the science community, giving researchers and students access to much-needed papers that would otherwise be a huge financial burden on them.

Never the less, if the judge's recommendation is implemented, even papers relating to science and research will effectively be turned to ashes by another round of eBook burnings.

First they took our right to privacy, now they take our right to freedom of thought and reading?

Orwell -- you the man!

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