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Free Speech and the Internet

Updated October 13, 2020
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Free Speech and the Internet essay

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As rightly said, we are all now connected by the internet like neurons in a giant brain. I voice my support in the favor of this statement. The digital revolution has produced the most diverse, participatory, and amplified communications medium humans have ever had: the Internet. Most of the people use internet widely, be it for minor regular queries or for any task to be done. The principle of free speech is a foundation of Western democracy; I have the freedom to state any belief, however odious, so long as it doesn’t threaten anyone’s safety or impinge on anyone else’s freedom.

Civil society arrived at this principle after several thousand years because it makes a whole lot more sense than killing each other whenever we disagree. So what does that mean for free speech online? The entire internet is basically a patchwork of private spaces owned by different companies. When you build a website, create a blog post, make a comment, or update your social accounts, that content is touched by multiple companies – from hosts to registrars to service providers and browsers – on its way to the world’s eyeballs.

The First Amendment in the American Constitution famously guarantees US citizens the right to free speech. In Britain, until a “bill of rights” is established, in the form of the adoption of the European Convention of Human Rights next year, free speech is only defined negatively: we can only speak freely if the laws covering confidentiality, contempt of court, data protection and official secrets aren’t transgressed.

Written or spoken encouragement is not action, Mill argued, believing there could be no barrier to the expression of opinions. Even offensive lies must freely be expressed, for it is only in their expression that they can be exposed as fraudulent, Mill maintained. It is this classic liberal argument that is still used by civil liberties’ campaigners on the internet, like Hatewatch, which argues that those “hate speak” groups, such as neo-Nazis, must still speak freely, if only to expose and discredit themselves. The global expansion of the internet has provided a means by where free speech can reach broader audiences than ever before. The internet now makes it much harder for governments to limit the spread of knowledge and information.

The way the internet developed, spontaneously and unregulated, led to many of its users to idealise its uniquely free, decentralised and democratic character. Their celebration soon turned to condemnation when big business and government colonised the internet, with the latter in particular, seeking to regulate and control its immense, potential, power.

This has led to a series of bitter disputes, particularly in America. Despite the USA’s constitutional reverence of free speech, the debates surrounding free speech on the internet are fiercer and its censorship is further advanced in America than in Britain. This is probably because the US is several years ahead of Britain in terms of internet use – there are more providers, more sites and more users across the Atlantic.

The relevance of legal wrangles in the US for the internet in Britain is that their findings, like their technologies, are likely to be exported here. The internet is also such a global phenomenon that restrictions in the US obviously affect the availability of US “free speech” in Britain.

The US government first attempted to regulate the internet with the President Clinton’s Communications Decency Act which, after massive protest from the civil liberty groups and online enthusiasts, was dismissed by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1997.
Last autumn, Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) which made it a crime for commercial websites to communicate material considered “harmful to minors.” However, on February 2, 1999, a federal judge ruled that the law would restrict free speech in the “marketplace of ideas.”

“Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection,” Judge Lowell Reed ruled.
But the US courts are creating different precedents concerning internet law almost daily.

Just a day after Judge Reed’s ruling in Washington, an Oregon jury awarded damages of $107.9 million against anti-abortionists for making thinly-veiled death threats to doctors on their “Nuremberg Files” website.

This, potentially, creates a potent precedent for curtailing the threat – and the freedom – of hate speech on the internet.
Though originally lauded and praised as a wonderful medium of communication and the epitome of freedom of expression, the Internet as a medium of communication has produced increased tensions especially in relation to the hate speech, defamation, indecent speech, and pornography among others. In this paper, I will in the interest of space and relevance to the topic under study restrict my discussion to hate speech on the Internet.

The Internet provides purveyors of hate materials with a new method of distribution, and has left some questioning whether current laws are obsolete.

It offers the means for any individual with access to a computer and a gateway to the Internet to participate in a free flow of information and ideas with others across the world. Yet that very potential to transcend national borders and impart information regardless of frontiers means that the Internet is also the subject of concerted efforts by governments to restrict freedoms and violate basic human rights such as the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of information.

In some countries where dissent is suppressed, the struggle for freedom of expression is now taking place online as governments devote increasing resources and attention to controlling access to information on the Internet and to surveillance of users. Their objective is often to prevent dissemination of information that is critical of them, as well as to track and monitor dissidents, some of whom may subsequently be imprisoned
for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The Internet itself can become a tool of repression where the monitoring of communications, the censoring and filtering of information and the amassing of immense databanks of information enhance the ability of repressive governments to restrict the freedoms and basic human rights of their citizens. Such national restrictions can affect not just those living in that country but all who seek to impart or receive information about it.

At the apex of international human rights instruments lies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Its provisions dealing expressly with freedom of expression are set out in Art 19, which states:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impact information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression as proclaimed in article 19 of the UDHR constitutes a cornerstone of democratic society. The right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom of information, is an absolute prerequisite for a democratic society. Under no circumstances should a person be imprisoned for expression of his views

As Mill stated in On Liberty, it is morally important to protect freedom of expression. One reason is that freedom of expression is a freedom that intrinsically matters a lot to most people. It involves both the freedom to express our beliefs and values, and the freedom to be informed by the publicly expressed beliefs and values of others. A second reason that it is morally important to protect freedom of expression is that freedom of expression typically promotes the discovery of, and the respect for, the truth.

By common sense, it is unethical for the state to impose any form of censorship. However, censorship itself is a long-lasting operation (Oboler, 1980:80), and as such it has been part of human history. There is no evidence that it is likely to decrease (Robotham & Shields, 1982:58); in fact it seems to be increasing in some countries such as the US and China. It came as the result of concerns raised by groups such as parents, teachers and the clergy as well as politicians, political candidates, law-enforcement officials, school administrators or board members and trustees of various organizations (Robotham & Shields, 1982:58).

There are various reasons for censorship; sometimes information is censored because of political, social, economic, religious, philosophical, moral, ideological, military, corporate, and educational reasons, where people feel material offers an attack on themselves and their personal values (Oboler, 1980). The focus and the degree of such censorship differ between countries. Censorship is evident in various contexts such as public libraries (Thompson, 1975), school libraries (Oboler, 1980), and in press as evidenced in the monograph on censorship and the press in Britain and the Netherlands edited by Duke and Tamse (1987). Such censorship often takes the form of e.g. age restriction and parental guidance.

It is also evident in other contexts such as theatre, religion and politics as revealed in a monograph edited by Hadfield (2001) on literature and censorship in England. In that monograph there is also evidence that censorship was applied to educational sources, music and entertainment, pictures, etc. Therefore, censorship can take many forms. For instance, McDonald (1993:5) alludes to voluntary censorship which occurs when the librarian, as a result of real or anticipated pressures from school boards and communities, removes or restricts resources or does not purchase certain titles.

One of the major concerns of Internet use is the freedom to post information on the Web which is unlimited in some instances without a review process. It is a platform where anyone can post a professional-looking website that contains biased, incorrect, or dangerous information. Therefore, there is serious concern especially when it comes to letting children use the Web, because the credibility of some websites is questionable. Although children and everyone using the Web need to learn to analyze and challenge the authority of documents on the Web, and not just assume the document is credible, it is still not known at all if children are able to do this and at what stage they can do it.

Thus it is often argued that censorship may be useful when it comes to children. Though originally lauded and praised as a wonderful medium of communication and the epitome of freedom of expression, the Internet as a medium of communication has produced increased tensions especially in relation to the hate speech, defamation, indecent speech, and pornography among others. In this paper, I will in the interest of space and relevance to the topic under study restrict my discussion to hate speech on the Internet. The Internet provides purveyors of hate materials with a new method of distribution, and has left some questioning whether current laws are obsolete.

It offers the means for any individual with access to a computer and a gateway to the Internet to participate in a free flow of information and ideas with others across the world. Yet that very potential to transcend national borders and impart information regardless of frontiers means that the Internet is also the subject of concerted efforts by governments to restrict freedoms and violate basic human rights such as the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of information.

In some countries where dissent is suppressed, the struggle for freedom of expression is now taking place online as governments devote increasing resources and attention to controlling access to information on the Internet and to surveillance of users. Their objective is often to prevent dissemination of information that is critical of them, as well as to track and monitor dissidents, some of whom may subsequently be imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The Internet itself can become a tool of repression where the monitoring of communications, the censoring and filtering of information and the amassing of immense databanks of information enhance the ability of repressive governments to restrict the freedoms and basic human rights of their citizens. Such national restrictions can affect not just those living in that country but all who seek to impart or receive information about it.

It’s this clash of the internet’s American values with European ones that has led Germany to introduce strict social media regulation; its ‘NetzDG’ law obliges Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to take down illegal content, fake news and hate speech. The internet is changing our expectations of free speech, but Britain remains confused about which model it actually wants. Boris Johnson’s column in the Daily Telegraph in November called for a free speech campaign, but the same article admitted that some online comments he received under his writing were “so unflattering they had to be removed”.

While the free speech debate in Britain draws us closer to an American model, Silicon Valley and its content moderators are moving away from it – making concessions to its free speech ethos to avoid more German style regulation. Until we can reach a global free speech standard, the UK is left to debate: how much do we want to absorb the internet’s most American export?

Another way of making Internet communications more secure is encryption, which is a technique for encoding messages, making the person who has the encryption key the only one who can read the message. These programs have been available for years, but law enforcement officials were concerned that criminals and terrorists will use the programs to send messages they can’t break. Under heavy pressure from the technology industry, and after a 1999 appeals court ruling that said creating encryption programs is a form of free speech, the federal government essentially gave up trying to control encryption technology.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the debate over encryption has been reopened, and Congress has made it easier for authorities to use electronic surveillance. Forums and Chatrooms frequently have moderators, who will edit or remove material against the rules of that community. The scope of these rules varies from community to community – some will want material to be suitable for a specific audience, whilst others only require discussions to be kept within the law.

In a landmark decision on June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the Internet is a unique medium entitled to the highest protection under the free speech protections of the First Amendment giving it the same free speech protection as print. It was a victory for the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC), a broad coalition of library and civil liberties groups, online service providers, newspaper, book, magazine and recording industry associations, and over 56,000 individual Internet users which represents the entire breadth of the Internet community.

The CIEC was assembled in February 1996 to challenge the CDA on the grounds that the Internet is a unique communications medium, different from traditional broadcast mass media which deserves broad First Amendment protections. Rejoicing with the CIEC in their victory are the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) which has been promoting the future of the First Amendment and free expression in the Information age and the Electronic Frontier Foundation which protects rights and freedom in the electronic environment.

Clamor for censorship of the freedom of speech, whether in broadcast or print media, in television or motion picture, in culture or arts, or in the electronic medium of the Web or the Net, are mostly based on moral and ethical considerations which can be highly subjective depending on the individual’s beliefs, culture, principles, and many other factors.

However, if we are to read and understand every word in the First Amendment, there was no mention of any restriction whatsoever; the emphasis rather was on providing equal rights to everyone. If this is so, neither the government nor individuals have the constitutional right to censor the other on the basis that his or her statements may be hateful or prejudicial because the law guarantees the right to express one’s thoughts vocally or in writing without fear of retaliation. What one may say need not be popular or correct.

I really do not think that censorship is a solution to the atmosphere of violence, obscenity and other social concerns pervading American society today. Censorship may even be harmful as it gives a temporary feeling of false security. Freedom of speech is just among the many rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The risk, however, is allowing our other rights to be diminished in the end. This is in contravention to the fundamentals of democracy

The development of a new medium always creates new anxieties. Gutenberg’s press prompted two centuries of debate over whether the spread of books would corrupt society. Privacy and free speech are already among the nation’s most difficult social issues; and it would be startling if the Internet did not raise new concerns about both of them.
Even the Internet itself is only the beginning. The electronic age is creating an entirely new medium, one that combines the interactive Internet with older media like TV, radio, print, mail, and the telephone. he questions of how to balance personal privacy and public safety have become all the more urgent since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The “war on terrorism” evolves daily, even as the technology continues to evolve. The public’s opinions about this medium are in flux — and their views on free speech and privacy were far from settled to begin with.

Free Speech and the Internet essay

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