Baroness Morgan reviews ‘dangerous ideas’
3 minutes to read
An engaging book asking important questions, Eric Berkowitz may argue that history shows censorship doesn’t work – but struggles to reconcile the impact of the internet in the modern age
This book is billed as “A Brief History of Censorship in the West, From Old to Fake News”. It unfolds rapidly through more than 2,000 years of debates over who decides what we see, what we know, and what we might say.
Berkowitz moves through ancient Greece, early Christianity, monarchies and governments of all types and in the impact of seditious defamation, obscenity laws, impact of the printing press, censorship in wartime mass communication innovations such as cinema (the BBFC was originally the Board of Film Censors), then the internet and social media. He writes: “The compulsion to silence others is as old as the urge to speak, for speech – words, images, expression itself – exerts power”.
As both Houses of Parliament prepare to begin examining the Internet Safety Bill in detail, this gripping book asks important questions about the wisdom and effectiveness of censorship, but presents a fundamental contradiction, to know the impact of the Internet in the modern age.
Berkowitz confidently asserts at the beginning and end of his book that “censorship doesn’t work” and argues that “hitting the floor to eliminate a dangerous idea is not only ineffective, it will cause worse harm in the long run.”
Online security bill will require extensive debate in parliament
It criticizes efforts to regulate speech online, but it must also recognize that when “speech becomes the enemy of free speech, when citizen speakers are reduced to online” users “, including the limited attention is manhandled for profit; when tsunamis of online trash are armed to stifle voices and dilute the truth; when algorithms decide which voices are heard or amplified… maybe it’s time to rethink some cherished assumptions ”.
Berkowitz’s struggle to reconcile these two claims – that censorship doesn’t work but action may now be needed in light of the modern Internet – means that his historical overview of censorship is much stronger than his account of the problems of modern times. Although he covered it briefly in his afterword, he was fortunate that most of his book was clearly written before the storming of Capitol Hill, the role of Donald Trump at that time, and his subsequent expulsion from Twitter and Facebook.
Where Berkowitz stands on firmer ground, as he exposes the role of legislatures and courts over the centuries in law and opinion on the rights surrounding freedom of speech and expression, is that it should not be private companies that decide only which voices are heard. As he puts it, “Non-state actors in the form of the internet and social media platforms have gained raw power over speech beyond the aspirations of even the most repressive governments.” The online safety bill will require a lot of debate in Parliament – and this will be just our first foray into the areas covered by the bill – but surely it must be fair that the debate takes place in both Houses and is not left to supervisory boards and algorithms. decide how online content is regulated.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes is a Conservative Peer and Former Secretary of Culture 2019-2020
Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Old Ones to the Fake News by Eric Berkowitz, is published by The Westbourne Press
Find out what MPs and peers are talking about. Sign up for the Chamber’s morning email for the latest information and feedback from parliamentarians, policymakers and organizations.