Dangerous Information

Every now and then I notice somebody arguing against some kind of access to information which, in the wrong hands, will cause bad things to happen. Like news describing some horrible murders or inventive theft schemes, violent video games corrupting children, software exploits posted on the internet…

There’s always that knee-jerk reaction to cut off access to that information. Stop reporting these things, stop children playing video games, stop telling everyone what you’ve found. Now there might be times when this could be sensible – if there was a way to build a bomb which could destroy the world, just using common household items – you’d probably want to keep that secret. But usually it’s not a black-and-white situation and any attempt to cut off access is 1) useless, 2) extremely difficult and 3) besides the point. If there are people who get inspired by crime stories, then they are probably already a problem – and those stories do attract a lot of viewers so you’d have to use force to stop the media from telling them, while doing nothing about the people who already are criminals (just not creative enough). If parents let young children play violent video games, or if older children get their moral compass from those experiences (instead of seeing a game as a game, and having fun), that means there’s already something wrong with that family – and the time and energy campaigning against violence in video games would be better spent in trying to fix the deeper problem. And as for software – well, at some point a hacker will find that exploit as well, and he will not notify the developer so he can fix it.

So if you catch yourself wanting to suppress information or just ban something in general, ask yourself these questions first:

  1. Am I only treating symptoms and missing the root cause?
  2. Will I be causing inconvenience/harm to innocent bystanders?
  3. Is there really a realistic chance of success, or am I just trying to “do something rather than nothing”?

Information can be bad, but just like technological progress, it can’t be stopped (in the long run). As a general rule, we should counter bad things with good things before we even think of using some kind of suppression technique.

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