Internet Freedom of Speech and Censorship

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The United States, a bastion of democracy to the world, has long recognized the importance of freedom of expression to safeguard democracy and grow as a nation. It is a right enshrined in the very first provision of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791, provides that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Although freedom of speech enjoys heightened protection from the government, this protection is not really absolute. The Supreme Court imposes some very narrow restrictions which are deemed not fully protected under the First Amendment. These include advocacy of imminent illegal conduct, defamation, obscenity, and fraudulent misrepresentation. In any of these categories, the speech should be suppressed because of its harmful content (Wang, page 1).

Freedom of speech is equally a dangerous right because with it goes the freedom to deviate against established rules and norms or to go against the status quo and advocate change. As such, all over the world, it is also the most threatened right. Many in the United States today, that include several citizens groups with specific advocacies, are pushing for censorship of the freedom of speech which interestingly finds expression in many varied forms. The internet is one arena that has lately been the target of these efforts as it provides practically everyone with the ability to communicate their ideas to wide audiences and conveniently escapes the ability of the state to control it. The internet, composed of millions of computers and telephone lines that are inter-connected and networked, have scant rules regarding what can be said and done with no one tasked to supervise the users as well no certain authority that controls it

Time and again, court cases have ruled against censorship but many still continue to fight to limit the freedom of expression. Government, for one, regularly undertakes efforts to regulate, restrict, or even prohibit a great many types of speech, often with popular support from the public. One reason for censorship of speech that is gaining strong following among the citizenry is the widespread proliferation and publication of extremely offensive materials that glorify violence and pornography. In his essay “Censorship Can Be Beneficial,” Thomas Stork says, “Now if we can identify certain evils and if advocacy of those evils seems likely to encourage people to commit them, then why should we not take the next and logical step and prohibit such advocacy… Must the authorities be helpless to restrain the source of the evil?” (As cited in Planet Papers, page 1). The general American public certainly wants not only to be protected from violence, but they also want to keep material out of the hands of those who are unable to handle the ideas and themes presented in such material. For instance, it can not be argued that small children do not have the maturity to view pornographic material or be exposed to extreme violence on television and that exposing them to such kind of “entertainment” is detrimental to their development. Many believe that pornography is equally harmful to adults.

The issue of censorship versus free speech has been, since time immemorial, a hotly contested subject. With the dawn of the electronic age, the birth and progress of the internet and the increasing use of electronic media for the dissemination of information, new questions over First Amendment rights are being raised. A lot of issues and concerns have been raised that borders around Web access to pornographic materials by minors, gambling on the Internet and the posting of abusive content on newsgroups. Web sites have been created promoting censorship in the Internet like “Filtering Facts”, an online source for information on making Internet access in libraries safe for children and communities and “Enough is Enough” which aims to protect children and families from illegal pornography on the Internet. Filtering, rests on the premise that technology can solve the problem technology created. Filters block out Web sites with offensive content, usually based on keywords or lists complied by the filter developer. Filter supporters say the technology is ideal because it empowers parents and blocks out speech without silencing the speaker. In February 1996, Congress moved to pass a law, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which prohibited the posting of "indecent" or "patently offensive" materials in a public forum on the Internet -- including web pages, newsgroups, chat rooms, or online discussion lists. The Children’s Online Protection Act, tried to ban material "harmful to minors" and In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) which requires schools and public libraries receiving federal funding to install internet filters or blocking software.

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 and right to dignity which have been specifically enshrined in our Constitution for us to exercise our liberty and live without fear and prejudice.

Today, millions of people are combating internet censorship through writing Blogs as well as by forming organizations that raise the people’s awareness regarding Internet censorship. An example would be the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which opposes Internet censorship and as such, has filled several lawsuits against censorship laws. In 2007, the Children's Online Protection Act (COPA) which made information that can be harmful to minors illegal even if the same information is necessary to adults, was brought to the federal court by the UCLA saying that it was unconstitutional.

 

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.

A Planet of PublishersPress critic A.J. Liebling once said that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Thanks to the Internet, millions of individuals now have the power that formerly only belonged to the owners of printing presses and broadcast licenses -- the power to spread their views, whether profound or profane, to a worldwide audience. That has prompted a remarkable burst of creativity, but it has also provided hate groups and pornographers with a low-cost way of spreading their messages to anyone, including children, with a personal computer.

So far, the U.S. government has supported two approaches to dealing with offensive content: regulation and filtering.

Two major attempts at regulation have been struck down by the courts, either in whole or in part. The first, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, would have made publishing "indecent" or "patently offensive" material on the Internet a federal offense. The U.S. Supreme Court, in ACLU vs. Reno, came down firmly on the side of granting the highest free-speech protection to the Internet and struck down the indecency portions of the law. A second law, the Children’s Online Protection Act, tried to ban material "harmful to minors." The Supreme Court sent the law back to a lower court for further review in May 2002, effectively blocking enforcement for the time being.

The other tactic, filtering, rests on the premise that technology can solve the problem technology created. Filters block out Web sites with offensive content, usually based on keywords or lists complied by the filter developer. Filter supporters say the technology is ideal because it empowers parents and blocks out speech without silencing the speaker. Critics say filters are a crude tool at best because they depend on keywords that could crop up on perfectly legitimate sites devoted to breast cancer, AIDS prevention, or the novel Moby Dick. A third federal law would have required all public libraries to use filters, but a federal court threw out the law in 2002, saying filters would block porn and protected speech alike.

Your Personal Fish BowlThe Internet itself may seem anonymous, but it is far from private. E-mail can be easily intercepted by anyone with enough technical skill, and Web sites can track substantial information about users, either by voluntary registration or involuntarily through the use of "cookies" -- files quietly stored on a visitor's computer that will identify them to the Web site on their next visit.

One way of making Internet communications more secure is encryption, the technique for coding messages so they can only be read by someone who has the encryption "key." Encryption programs have been available for years, and businesses contend that strong encryption is critical to keeping online commerce secure. But even before Sept. 11, 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 already made it easier for authorities to use electronic surveillance.

But the ability of Web sites and hackers to collect information pales next to the newfound power technology gives to governments and marketers. "Data warehouses" are able to mix information from different sources to create a single, detailed profile of an individual, including vital statistics, how much they earn, what they buy, the state of their health, their interests, what they read, and more. And all of that information is for sale -- to direct marketers, current and potential employers, or just anybody willing to pay for it. Already, as part of the war on terrorism, the federal government and financial services companies are discussing how to use their databases to flag suspicious activity.

Current privacy laws are rarely enforced and would offer spotty protection even if they were. The Supreme Court has upheld a federal law barring states from selling information they collect, such as voter registrations and motor vehicle records, to direct marketers.

References:

"Communications Decency Act." Center for Democracy & Technology. 2008. 2 May 2008 <http://www.cdt.org/speech/cda/ >.

“Speak Your Mind: The Censorship Controversy in American Culture". Planet Papers. 2006. 1 May 2008 http://www.planetpapers.com/Assets/5616.php

“Supreme Court Rules CDA Unconstitutional.” Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition. 2008. 2 May 2008 <http://www.ciec.org/more_background.shtml>.

Wang, Xinyi. "Freedom of Speech in the United States Constitution." Perspectives. 30 Apr 2001. 2 May 2008 <http://www.oycf.org/perspectives/11_043001/freedom.htm >.

 

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