A hierarchy of freedoms: Are we slipping down it?

An insurance company’s TV advertisement in the UK asks ‘When is a good deal not a good deal?’, and then actors portrayed as customers, upset with their insurance deals, outline how exceptions, fine print and other gimmicks mean a good deal is sometimes far worse than original appearances suggested.

So when is censorship not censorship? When it is disguised as something benevolent (or should I make that ‘not evil’?)? When it makes loud noises about how the proposed step promotes integrity and honesty? When it is ‘company policy’ (oh, those dreaded words!)? Any other reasons you can think of, please use the comments link and let me know.

Google has recently decided to ban adverts for essay writing services saying that plagiarism is destroying the integrity of University degrees.* Rah rah say Universities trying to clamp down on plagiarism. (For my University’s guidelines for students, click here.) Proportionate? I do not know. For all these essay writing services available, I know, in the last 5 years, of only one case of plagiarism in my faculty which was reprimanded and punished, and did not involve any outside party at all. Necessary? Debatable, in my view. Sufficient? Definitely not. How will one filter out competitive parents and siblings helping pupils get an edge over their peers? At any rate, should students, who are already at University, not know by now that plagiarism is not only morally suspect but one also runs the risk of not really knowing whether one has learnt anything or not in one’s degree? How do they have the money to fund procuring these outsourced essays without their parents’ consent or without abusing or violating their educational loan or grant conditions? PR exercise? Possibly to definitely. Is Google (‘we use algorithms’) now Yahoo (‘we do editorial too’)? I cannot say yet. Can you?

The essay writing businesses (What were you guys thinking when you began this ‘business’ anyway? Before offering ‘no plagiarism’ guarantees, as many of you do, do you know what plagiarism is? If not, see link above.) are now notably cross as they find themselves in the august company of other purveyors of unacceptable content such as those selling drugs, prostitution, tobacco, weapons, and miracle cures. Like all those categories, essay writing services are big business. Apparently some 12000 essays were sold in a year in the UK alone (if each cost £100, that is a revenue of £1.2M!)

All this is fine but for all these judgements, we rely on Google’s ‘do no evil’ editorial policy. And one day, we shall all be in Utopia! Or is that Atlantis? Hmm…

On the other side of Utopia, with an aim to protect the integrity of their society from nefarious influences deemed unsuitable for their culture, the Chinese government reportedly filters out a lot of web content including, it appears, WordPress and predictably, any information about the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Tiananmen Square and Taiwan. Sometimes companies voluntarily agree to self-censor to gain access to their market.

Federal rules in India, the world’s largest democracy and my country of birth, reportedly make it lawful to block websites in the interest of

  • sovereignty or integrity of India
  • security of the state
  • friendly relations with foreign states and public order
  • preventing incitement to commissioning of any cognizable offences

This sort of censorship, oops, content filtering is growing around the world in stealth mode, as the Open Net Initiative found out recently. The list interestingly includes South Korea but not North Korea. One can almost expect Burma to be there, and then there is Singapore, in the company of a range of Islamic states.

I find all this amusing and baffling at the same time as I try to make sense of it all jointly and severally as they say.

Is there a hierarchy of integrity? Is there a hierarchy of freedoms to be exercised? How far can one bend rules before they break and how far can laws be negotiated? Whose rules? Whose laws? What about our moral contracts with our Universities, our society, our countries, ourselves? Is it ok for companies to do what they like but not countries to do what they like? Why is one legal entity different from a sovereign entity? Is it simply that we turn a blind eye to China’s and India’s policies, seeing as they are both suppliers of cheap goods and services, and consumers of premium goods flowing eastward?

Or is our world now firmly ‘Absurdistan’, the kind depicted in a recent broadsheet print article, where the words ‘escort’ and ‘prostitute’ appeared in full several times, but the word ‘shit’ was asterisked out?

* By the way, this just means that no sponsored links will show. Try searching on Google for guns, sexual service providers, essay writing services etc. and you will still see sites selling them. It is just that no sponsored links will appear.

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