Guest Commentary: The Shut-Up Switch

By Institute for Global Ethics | Mar 09, 2012

by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

The hottest item on Google’s list of trending topics late last week was a report from a Philadelphia television station about a man who admitted he used a cell-phone jamming gizmo to block conversations of other riders on his bus.

He told reporters that his improvised (and, it should be noted, illegal) device puts a lid on loud talkers and rude behavior. He also admits taking the law into his own hands, but declares, “Quite frankly, I’m proud of it.”

The Philadelphia bus story was one of several recent items highlighting the fact that technology can be used to stifle as well as stimulate communication. Among the others:

  • In Japan, researchers have developed an instrument that essentially stuns someone into silence by beaming the speaker’s words back at him a split-second later — a delay that short-circuits the brain’s auditory pathways and causes the person to stutter to a halt. The “speech jammer,” according to some reports, is seen as an ideal method to calm a noisy classroom or a roiling demonstration.
  • In Washington, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it is seeking public input on the proper circumstances under which the government can cut off wireless service to protect the public. The inquiry comes after San Francisco transit authorities blocked cell and internet access in some stations last August in order to quell expected organized protests.
  • In London, police have considered asking Parliament for laws that would shut down Twitter feeds in the event that authorities discover that the microblogging service is being used to form crowds and foment a riot.
  • In China, there’s been a crackdown on sales of software that is designed to circumvent the government’s content filters on the internet — filters that routinely excise material related to democracy and protest. Some speculate that that the move is motivated by the government’s fears of an Arab Spring-type political movement fueled by social media.

These developments represent a new twist to a very old ethical problem: the balance between the rights of the individual to expression and the presumed good of the majority to enjoy safety and security.

The Gutenberg press, for example, stirred up all sorts of draconian licensing laws when it became apparent that the machine could interfere with public order by inciting dissent. Several centuries later, pamphleteers found themselves in the government’s crosshairs in the early days of World War I, when someone advocating a munitions strike was charged with endangering troops abroad.

It was that case, in fact, that prompted U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to reason that the right to expression stopped at the point where words became weapons, such as falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. The intent of such words was to harm, not to inform or express, reasoned Holmes, thus placing them out of the reach of First Amendment protections.

You could argue, and I might agree, that the issue of when it is right to ban communication is more salient than ever because the technology that we expect to enable communication can more effectively inhibit it as well.

For example, pamphleteers throughout history have been highly successful agitators because it is so difficult to root out every single printing press. Radio has for many years been an efficient medium for propaganda and counter-propaganda because portable sets were so common and radio frequencies so diverse that it was impossible to jam them all.

But electronic networks (and neural pathways, apparently) are quite vulnerable to certain types of throttling. Select portions of the United States’ internet backbone could, in fact, be shut down with a single switch.

Sound farfetched? I’m no technical expert, but presumably the U.S. government is, and there is currently a proposal regaining momentum in Congress to provide the president with a “kill switch” for various sectors of the internet.

The Lieberman/Collins/Rockefeller/Feinstein cybersecurity bill appears to be on the fast track for a vote by the full Senate. The measure’s stated purpose is to protect the U.S. banking systems from cyber-attack and to prevent cyber-terrorists from taking control of critical structures such as dams and power plants. Various civil libertarians, however, worry that such kill switch measures could be used to inhibit free speech and other liberties.

How far should the government ethically and legally be able to go in order to prevent insurrection and danger to the common good? Should it be permissible to cut cell-phone communications to short-circuit a riot? Should the president have a kill switch for the internet in the event of a cyber-attack?

I don’t have the answer, but you might. Please post your comments.

©2012 Institute for Global Ethics

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