The Free Word

What should ye do then, should ye suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge and new light sprung up and yet springing daily in this city, should ye set an oligarchy of twenty ingrossers over it, to bring a famine upon our minds again, when we shall know nothing but what is measured to us by their bushel?

On this day in 1644 John Milton published his pamphlet Areopagitica. This was Milton’s indignant response to the Licensing Order issued by Parliament the previous year, requiring all authors to submit their works to a government censor prior to publication. The government’s true responsibility, Milton argued, was to give its citizens “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Though book banning is still common enough, the new censorship battleground is digital. Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked explores the “new realities of power, freedom, and control in the Internet age.” Beyond uttering “cyberutopian platitudes,” says MacKinnon, most governments and most Internet and telecommunications companies have failed to act responsibly. And most individuals have failed to make the Miltonic protest:

The reality is that the corporations and governments that build, operate and govern cyberspace are not being held sufficiently accountable for their exercise of power over the lives and identities of people who use digital networks. They are sovereigns operating without the consent of the networked.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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