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May 1, 2012

Is Alexander Aan “Daniel Isaac Eaton” all over again?

An Indonesian man is facing prison for publishing a Facebook he doesn’t believe in God. He has been threatened with prison, but he has also found a large degree of support.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you probably know that 200 years ago, A British man named Daniel Isaac Eaton was sentenced to prison and the pillory for publishing a “Deist” track by Thomas Paine.

Daniel Isaac Eaton, portrait from trial

Daniel Isaac Eaton

Neither man got in trouble for being a disbeliever.  Aan is accused of misusing phrases from the Koran, and Eaton was accused of blasphemy against the teachings of the Church of England.

You can read what I had to say about Eaton’s trial and draw your own parallels.  If Alexander Aan receives a prison sentence, the similarities may end.

Technology, and the law, have changed a great deal in the past 200 years, or rather in the past 20 years.

Until recently, it was up to the publisher to review every story that was published.  If a journalist in a newspaper was accused of libel, the newspaper would be sued.

There were practical reasons for this.

1. Location. Controversial writers like Thomas Paine could leave the country, and many from abroad never entered the country in the first place.  It was the publisher who gave the controvertial thinker a platform to share his views.

2. Money.  Thomas Paine, and others like him, died broke.  The aggrieved party could challenge the offender to a duel, but not everyone who was offended or insulted was a fighting man.  It was easier to sue.

Publishers tended to have a little money, at least enough for a printing press.  Anyone who could afford a pen and paper could write a book or draw a cartoon, but it needed a publisher to provide the platform to share it with the world.

As time has gone by, the cost of publishing has gone up.  You may have your own website or domain name, or possibly even your own server, but few people have their own registrar.  It is even more difficult to get published electronically without the help of a third party.

More importantly, the courts have decided on the side of the Internet giants.   Internet publishers have much greater power than print publishers ever had, and much less responsibility.  And it’s increasingly difficult to get your message seen without it being linked to by the big players.

(This seems to have started when Bill Clinton signed an bill into law that made digital signatures legal.  However, the shift would’ve never been possible without legal interpretation.)

Well, these days there are a few large companies willing to provide you with “free” space, in exchange for the free content you provide to sell their advertising.  Social networks, free webspace providers, online video uploaders and others are a cross between ham radio (or public access television) and the old media giants of the television age.

Three big companies censor most of the content that goes on the web according to what they believe should and shouldn’t be shared.

If Daniel Isaac Eaton were alive today, I wonder whether he would be in prison, or if he would be a billionaire.  Would he be an Alexander Aan, a Rupert Murdoch, or some inconsequential blogger?

Perhaps as time goes on, some of my contacts from Indonesia will provide me with more information on Mr. Ann and what he is accused of.

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