Censoring the internet – A plea from John Milton

The new editor at Christian Today has invited me back to do a weekly column for them…here is the first – on lessons from John Milton about Internet censorship. 

google

Did you know that President Lincoln stated, “Most of what you read on the Internet is false”? I’m afraid if you cannot spot the obvious flaw in that statement then you are not worthy of reading this column! However England’s greatest poet, the 17th Century Puritan, John Milton, did have something to say about the Internet. Let me explain.

Both the EU and the UK government have recently suggested further strong regulation to seek to control the worldwide web. The EU, despite significant popular protest, has passed radical proposals to severely limit the Internet.

This will affect everything from blogs and podcasts to larger sites. YouTube suggested it would mean them taking down 90 million of their videos. It will create a dual Internet – a restrictive one for the EU (along with North Korea and China) and a more open one for the rest of the world. Some argue that the EU are going with the big firms and the corporate lobbyists and limiting both freedom of speech and the free market.

The UK government have produced their own Online Harms paper – which effectively proposes an end to self-regulation and instead suggests a government regulator. Some see this as a necessary corrective; others describe it as an historic attack on free speech and freedom of the press. The trouble is, what do you do with material that is not illegal but which may be considered harmful? After all I think liberal theology, TV reality shows and boy bands are harmful. Should they be banned? On the other hand I am constantly told that my espousal of biblical morality is harmful and should be banned? Where are we heading?

This is where John Milton comes in. In the 1640s, the UK was split by a civil war – the nation was divided and tempers were running high (plus ca change…!). A relatively new technology, the printing press was having an enormous impact. And so the politicians in parliament decided they should do something about it and put forward a ‘licensing order’ in June 1643 to regulate the press.

MiltonScreenshot 2019-04-15 09.28.47Milton responded in 1644 with a passionate plea called ‘Areopagitica – A speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing, to the Parliament of England’. It is a stunning work that has a lot to teach us. Remember those who refuse to learn from their past will repeat it!

Milton argued that suppressing books was like murdering someone. He stated that it was good for Christians to read the works of those who disagreed with them and that a mature people should be able to discern what is good and bad, without the government doing it for us.

In addition, he pointed out that those who would be the licensers were not infallible, nor were they uncorrupt. If we are going to regulate printing (or the internet?) then we are going to have to have government regulation for everything else – from music to clothing.

Besides which we cannot expel sin and evil by censorship and regulation. The State has the right to govern us, but not to be our critics. Do we really think the people are so stupid that we have to be treated like children?

The danger with State (or corporate) censorship is that inevitably we end up excluding much that is good, as well as the bad. Milton also warns that the attempt to control thought, by either State or Church leads to a ‘forced and outward union of cold and neutral, and inwardly divided minds’.  Again in comments that are so pertinent to our day, he warns that government regulation will inevitably lead to the bigger companies having a monopoly.

When God is shaking a kingdom then of course there will be bad and false teaching, but God will send out teachers of his truth to deal with error. We must not suppress error with the power of the State but defeat it by the truth of Christ.

Milton – reflecting the teachings of Christ – surely has a word for our day. The governments should treat us like grown-ups able to think and reason for ourselves. We don’t need them to censor on our behalf – because inevitably they will end up censoring us.

Freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of religion are far too precious to be handed over to a government committee or a Californian mega corporation. I’ll leave the last word with Milton:

“Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Saturday Review 12 – John Milton; Titania McGarth; Marilynne Robinson; Melvyn Bragg on Tyndale; Quillette; Tim Shipman; The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind; Australia with Julia Bradbury; Runrig

Dear Twitter – Why Have You Banned Me?

6 thoughts on “Censoring the internet – A plea from John Milton

  1. Milton reminding us today that Christianity has so much to say about liberty – first of all our liberty in Christ – and how secular society benefits from this fundamental freedom. Unfortunately like so much else in our Christian heritage the richness and preciousness of these treasures have been squandered by our Church leaders in order to make way for an inferior secular idea of freedom. This as Milton points to is based on the flawed natures of man. No wonder we are in such a mess today.

  2. David,

    Actually in communication the trouble is not “what do you do with material that is not illegal but which may be considered harmful”; for that problem obviously is persistently unavoidable and, consequently, forever out there to serve as a pretext to regulate communication. Rather, in communication the trouble actually is how to keep-on maintaining and extending central control with it.

    Very briefly, whether it is national or supranational, historically communication regulation is seen to recognise no boundary and, always it regards central control as its purpose or objective. In this way, its inalterable focus – since the advent of telephony at least – is UNIVERSAL SERVICE.

    Traditionally, therefore, communication regulation deals exclusively with “minimum connection” requirements. Neither the child nor the adult is considered; only the eligible object, the abstract unit of the terminal user is in evidence (In John Milton’s day the same conditions prevailed except the abstract unit was the printing press).

    In the abstract, unit person and terminal are equal; both central control and universality demand equality. Such equality is consequently guaranteed by communication regulation which is calculated by regulators (that is, central controllers) to assure the triumph of logic over morality. But the defeat of morality reconstitutes people as it affects the way people think or alters the conditions under which thinking is permitted. Equality reduces indigenous judiciary systems into a state of dissolution and local disintegration with the consequence that the law focused on faith, private property, territoriality and the mysticism of its inhabitants is gradually destroyed.

    Thus, students of communication regulation will observe that the object of communication regulation is to open the way for a central controller to penetrate the conscience, subconscious and unconscious of every human being, and that the pretence of wanting to manage/improve services and/or of deciding what is and is not communicable (or “harmful” in your subservient language[1]) is to help attain that objective justifiably.

    “Justifiably” since regulatory advances are made under the cover of the pretext, and not in light of its object.

    Edouard.

    [1] The term “harmful” is subservient language because it advocates for regulation or, put differently, using the word harmful adversely affects freedom from regulation.

  3. Those ideas are not really convincing. Acts 19 shows the first Christian book-burning – are books of magic tolerable ? What about pornographic photographs ? Obscene art ? Publications propagating atheism, blasphemy, sodomy, same-sex marriage, paedophilia, black magic, slander, murder, genocide, moral relativism, nihilism, or “snuff movies” ? Sorry to mention such things, but they are all available now, even though some were not available then.

    His proposal is all very well for a certain type of society, but not as a prescription for all. There have to be limits to what it is permissible to print, because of human nature. That censors were not infallible is irrelevant and an evasion: they did not claim to be.

    Censorship, however regrettable, is not an injustice, because there can be no right to propagate evil. Therefore, authors of evil books are not being wronged when a censor refuses to authorise their publications.

    1. Thanks James – if you read Milton’s article he deals with Acts 19. These were Christians burning their own magic books – not the State seizing them and burning them. Clearly no one advocates for complete freedom in that instructions on how to murder, or pornography. But when you suggest that the State should ban atheist books, or books on moral relativism etc. Milton’s arguments against State censorship do stand.

  4. My apologies for delaying. I have been very busy with Easter. I also recognise that what I’m taking issue with is relatively collateral to this article. However, more generally, it is important to much of the thinking that underlies your blogs.

    “When God is shaking a kingdom then of course there will be bad and false teaching, but God will send out teachers of his truth to deal with error.”

    I agree with the second half of that sentence, but what is your basis for saying that God shakes kingdoms? I know a lot of people think in those terms. They have done for centuries. In the Old Testament God, by deed and through his prophets, does seem to deal with the Israelite nation – or for a part of the Old Testament, two of them. And the gospels contain much that is pertinent to God’s dealings with the Jews as his chosen people. However, what evidence do you claim either from the New Testament or even, were history to be authority for anything, from history, for maintaining that since the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has any particular interest in the fate of any other nation. I’ve serious doubts whether he sees them at all, yet alone is interested in them, rather than individuals and the faithfulness of his Church. If he does recognises them at all, I strongly suspect that it goes no further than an incarnational recognition that for good or bad, that’s the way people organise themselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *