Could Censorship be Necessary?

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On the first of November this year, a law was passed in Russia banning certain internet sites devoted to drug-use, pornography, and suicide. Experts have warned that this law could be used as a pretext by the government in order to ban whichever websites they find threatening, and already two important discussion-based websites have been shut down simply for containing related terms such as ‘marijuana.’ It’s easy to see that a huge number of sites could be shut down without ceremony if the criterion for their closure is simply to use a related term.

The law draws attention to an important issue, however, and that is the potentially destructive use of the internet by suicide-encouragement, pro-anorexia, and other more esoteric sites. One quick Google search for the term ‘suicide encouragement’ brings up this disturbing quote (caution: contains some explicit content): 

"Are you feeling down and think the world would be a better place without you? Well chances are, it probably would be. Do you feel like everyone hates you? Well they probably do. Have you reached the point of no return and feel there is only one way out, but are too much of a pussy to actually go through with it? Well youve [sic] come to the right place. In this thread i [sic] will walk you through your suicide. I will be covering everything from making it messy to making it painless. I will even edit your suicide letters so you dont [sic] sound like a rambling idiot."
This is followed on by the equally sinister:
                "Been craving a good broadcasted suicide. Hope this thread delivers."
The thread (which was obscurely started on a forum dedicated to discussion about hip-hop) was quickly shut down but the message remains. Unfortunately only the very vulnerable (and those writing about the phenomenon) are likely to search for the term ‘suicide encouragement’, and when they come across such a message there is a chance that they may well take it to heart.
At the strangest end of the spectrum, there are sites dedicated to subjects such as cannibalism, and while these sites do most often feature disclaimers such as ‘this site is for discussion of fantasy subjects,’ they have been known to facilitate real-life cannibal and victim scenarios. The most famous of these was the murder of Bernd Jürgen Brandes by Armin Meiwes, who met his victim online at The Cannibal Café (again, caution, as this link contains some explicit content). Although Brandes was a willing participant in the act, Meiwes was convicted of murder because Brandes' sanity could not be confirmed and he was in an advanced state of inebriation at the time of the murder.
This is to say nothing of the child pornography that exists on the internet. The problem, of course, is that there is no law against having any form of private sexual fantasy you like, and discussing it. Nor is there a law against encouraging people to kill themselves for kicks, or encouraging people to starve themselves to death. There aren’t even any laws against the consensual consumption of another person’s body.
It’s true that sites that feature destructive messages may well contribute to the deaths of many vulnerable people. However, destructive messages can reach vulnerable people in many ways; through real-life encounters, through television, magazines, and other media. The internet simply facilitates communication between those with extremely esoteric (and sometimes downright bizarre) interests and fantasies, meaning that some people who may never have had the opportunity to meet another person like themselves in real life can openly discuss their interests and fantasies with many others who share them. In many cases this does mean that the encouragement of self-destructive impulses and the amplification of existing mental disturbances can occur.
While distributing or possessing child pornography (and that does mean even looking at it) is illegal and censored in most countries in the world, the discussion of subjects such as drugs, anorexia, suicide, and cannibalism, remains fully legal. The problem is that there is a fine line between discussion and abuse. Just as vulnerable people can be verbally abused and manipulated in real life, the same thing can happen online.
And yet freedom of speech must be protected. Perhaps the only solution is to enforce the strict monitoring of such discussion forums so that any potentially abusive conversations can be identified and terminated. But with the proliferation of comment-based sites and open discussion on the internet, it is becoming more and more difficult to do so.

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