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Free Speech on the Internet

What is life today without the Internet? It has invaded almost every aspect of our lives such that internet addiction is now being considered a valid medical and psychological condition that needs to be treated. However the question that needs to be asked is why do so many of us, actually almost anyone who can get a connection, use it so much that we feel that we cannot live without it? There are many answers to this question, but one of the most common ones is the fact that it is the one forum that can be truly classified as being free to express your thoughts, ideas, politics, views, beliefs and almost anything else you can think of, without any of the restrictions that society and many controlling and often times authoritarian governments impose. This is the main concept behind Free Speech. The idea that we as individuals or as a group are free to espouse any and all opinions, whether right or wrong, personal or public, offensive or politically correct, without fear of retribution or sanction. The Internet in that sense is unique in that it cuts across borders, race, religion and even language to provide a way to channel that freedom and provide an outlet for an improved society. Who would not want this ability and right to continue? But bit by bit, rule by rule, society and governments are beginning to impose restrictions that a short time ago would be unthinkable. Therefore this article is a wake-up call to those who think the open Internet is here to stay. Free speech is under threat and we need to be aware to what is going on and take action before we lose our unique technological freedoms.

A thematic map of internet censorship

The Evolution

The Internet’s own evolution was the product of a simple concept by Tim Berners Lee. The idea of viewing and sharing content over multiple computers and networks without any of the normal physical restrictions we had till then. What an idea! Use technology to share and cooperate. This was an innovation that was revolutionary at the time, but absolutely mundane and normal today. In fact we find technology or inventions have often been the stepping stones to more freedoms for our society. There are many examples of this such as the railroad which gave people the ability to travel, move goods and bind communities and countries. Or the telephone which gave people the ability to talk in real time and be more connected with family, friends and businesses. Or the television which gave people the ability to watch events and experience something live while sitting thousands of miles away. There are many more which can be listed, but what is the connection between all of these and the Internet? Human beings by default are social creatures and we thrive on the ability to discuss, share and experience together. If you review these carefully you will see that each innovation has brought people closer to each other and encouraged societies to collaborate and integrate more. And as these steps have occurred freedoms have grown and old barriers have fallen. Information which was restricted began to flow more freely and people became more aware of societal and other issues, that before were compartmentalized due to lack of information sharing. In fact the Internet is just one more step down this road of further integration, sharing, socializing and empowerment. This is why the control of free speech on the internet is so critical. Individuals and citizens have now been given a unique ability to probe and question, review and challenge like never before, due to the freedom the internet has provided to access information. We see this as our right, but we cannot take it for granted!

The Problem

Access to information and our ability for free speech to discuss, review and propose is today an undeniable democratic right, which many would consider a fundamental human right. Unfortunately today that very democratic ideal to which we all subscribe to is under threat in a variety of ways throughout the world. Both governments and organizations are trying to impose controls on what is acceptable and what is not. They work from the mistaken belief that benevolent control is better than pure freedom, but they miss the point that societies only grow and mature when free speech is allowed to flourish as an outlet not only of dissent, but as a source of creativity and development. However the minority still tries to control the majority and a struggle is beginning to impose controls on the Internet and limit our right to free speech. Why is this? This is because of the unique structure of the Internet. Unlike many others in today’s society and governments, the Internet is a decentralized combination of numerous networks. It is correct to say that the addressing scheme by which every website is accessed is controlled by a central authority ICANN, but this is purely for identification purposes. There is no standard authority that can impose controls or restrict information unilaterally across the entire Internet. This is why it has thrived because as I mentioned before, people and society want free access to information and oppose any kind of secrecy. Today in an ever connected world there is so much information that is available it is common to subscribe to the “information overload” mantra. But the key is that more information is more freedom. More freedom means a greater ability to have open debates with the powers that be and question their right to rule and impose controls. This is exactly what a democracy means and this is exactly what those in power and the elites want to prevent. They see the Internet and the right to free speech inherent in it as a threat to their control. Can we afford to accede to their views? To understand this we need to review some recent examples of how free speech has been utilized through the internet and the reactions to its use.

Internet Free Speech: Right to Access Information

Let us discuss one of the best known examples. I am quite sure almost everyone has heard about Wikileaks. This is an organization dedicated to the dissemination of secrets whether in the government or business sectors. Without professing an opinion to the correctness of their credo or actions, it is important to understand what they have done in the light of this debate. It is commonly known that a disgruntled American military officer, who felt that his government’s actions were not acceptable, decided that it was necessary to reveal this to the public, and then proceeded to leak a large volume of government cables and details to Wikileaks. This organization proceeded to release wholesale and unedited via the internet these documents for public review. Without going into details about all of this information, it is sufficient to say that this leak of information caused the American government significant embarrassment by revealing their inner workings, interactions with other governments and actual positions on issues unclouded by the normal public rhetoric. It was an eye-opener to many and shone a bright light on a government’s workings which was hither to shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Now what does mean for the free speech debate. On one side are those who say this affected National Security and those that did it mainly the American military officer and Wikileaks should be considered traitors to the country. On the other side are those who believe that this was the absolute right thing to do as the public has every right to know what the governments they elected are doing in their names. If democratic rights are not to be impeded there cannot be any exceptions to information disclosure, and the right to discuss and debate any and all government actions.

Free speech as guaranteed by the American constitution makes no distinction on this and neither does the International Convention on Human Rights. The right to free speech is guaranteed no matter what the medium and there is no restriction on what information can be provided or discussed. Simply imposing restrictions in the name of National Security considerations and prosecuting people for exercising their democratic right does not advance the cause of freedom, but restricts it. In the light of this affair governments around the world are reviewing their laws to criminalize the dissemination of such information in order to hide and obscure their activities. As I mentioned before the more that an individual’s ability to view and discuss information freely is restricted, the less control we have on our democratic rights. The internet is a fundamental forum for this dissemination and discussion of information and cannot be controlled by any one benevolent entity. Doing so goes against the fundamental credo that all information is free and that we each have a fundamental right to talk and discuss anything that we want. I am not debating here the correctness of what was released, but the right to review and discuss whatever we as individuals want to. The internet today is the final frontier for freedom of speech and we cannot afford to allow it to be controlled.

Internet Free Speech: The Growth of Surveillance

Another threat to free speech on the internet is the growth of surveillance in its use. A very good example of this is the case of Edward Snowden, the American National Security Agency (NSA) analyst who exposed through a series of revelations the extent to which the American government spies on the emails, messaging, chats and even phone calls of its citizens and foreigners. You may subscribe to the thought that many governments do this, but that does not justify it being done. In fact it is now commonly thought that there are three things definite in life rather than two. These are death, taxes and being monitored by a government agency! It defies belief that a tool of freedom, the internet, has been subverted by the very authorities that seek to control it and prevent information from being disseminated. These organizations see nothing wrong in monitoring its citizens, but raise a huge outcry when secret information is released or debated on the internet. The hypocrisy of this stand is evident for all to see and once again undermines the right to free speech on the internet without the right to being monitored. The argument that is often provided against this is that it is a necessary activity to prevent the rise of radicalism and the onset of attacks, but at what cost to personal freedom. The right to free speech means that the internet should not be utilized as a listening post and monitoring station, no more than it would be right to monitor public discussions or debate for the same purpose. The internet is a medium through which we improve our freedoms, and we cannot allow it to become a forum for surveillance that harks back to the controlled societies of the past.

Internet Free Speech: Pornography and Racism

Finally a discussion on this topic cannot be concluded without reference to the enduring negatives that people always bring up when referring to the internet. This has to be the role and ready availability of pornography and racism. This is a debate that skirts the fine line between freedom and decency. It goes beyond saying that these topics raise disgust and are abhorrent in many cases to the vast majority of those who use the internet. These are practices that need to be condemned and cannot be justified as acts by themselves either for personal gratification or superiority. That said the right to free speech whether we like it or not, does cover the individuals that choose to promote such things. As I mentioned earlier in the article, this right does not distinguish between what is right or wrong, merely the fact that an individual has a right to free speech and so can discuss and display anything he or she wishes. On the other hand we as society have the same right to oppose, debate and sanction those who follow such actions and penalize them according to the laws of the land. Let me be clear. The internet is a forum for free speech so we cannot and must not restrict, nor monitor the flow of information on it, or risk being compared to the governments that do the same to its citizens. We do however have the right as a society to debate and isolate such fringe elements without impeding on our right to free speech. It is up to us as a society to decide which way we go, but it clear that freedom is the better choice for only this can ensure we are not enslaved to a minority view.

The Threat to the Internet

Therefore it is clear that free speech on the internet is a fundamental yet difficult right to have. We as individuals have always wanted the right to talk and discuss about anything we want without any restrictions. The internet has provided a unique global platform on which to do this while interacting with millions. While it is true that we have a responsibility to exercise this right appropriately, it is also true we do not have the right to restrict or monitor others speech online if we want to maintain our own universal rights. As difficult as this might be to accept in certain circumstances, overall it is a rule worth following. Exceptions to the rule have a chance of becoming the rule if we are not careful. Already various governments are seeking to place controls on the internet. These range from web filters to screen out objectionable content, to blocking websites that are deemed offensive or politically incorrect, or even restricting internet access if deemed a security threat to the state or in interests of the people. When governments take these actions these are steps in a long road to making the internet a more compliant, less free and greater surveillance system. Already there are signs that governments are seeking control on who puts what information on the internet, who gets access to it and what you can write or debate on it. Various countries ranging from China to Russia regularly try to restrict access or block content to prevent their citizenry form gaining access to public domain information freely available elsewhere. It is a commonly accepted fact that when you give people access to information and allow them the freedom of speech to debate and discuss, you improve society as a whole and reduce the chance of wide scale social upheaval. Free speech and the information that it is based on is the source of many of our freedoms today. We cannot allow governments or authorities to restrict that access.

How Do We Defend Free Speech on the Internet?

You may think that as an individual that you cannot do much about it, but that is where you are wrong. It is the power of the individual that is feared. This is because the power of one, becomes the power of the group and finally the power of the many that cannot be ignored. How many examples have they been of people by the sheer strength of their numbers and force of conviction that have caused authorities to change tack and veer towards what is right. Take the so called “Arab Spring” and the use of Twitter to organize the protests that brought down authoritarian governments. Yes it is true that not all protests yield results, but that does not mean it should not be tried for lack of success. Perseverance is the best way to force change. There are already many private and professional lobby groups that are actively seeking to defend internet freedom and the right to free speech. Supporters have organized online lobby groups that are besieging people’s representatives to remove restrictions and ensure internet freedom. Of course this issue has raised a lot of debate in light of the recent disclosures I mentioned above. Yet it is all the more important that in this climate that we maintain the independence of the internet to allow for each and every one of us to have his or her free speech respected. Remember that yielding our rights is easy to do, but to get them back is exceedingly difficult.

Conclusion

The goal of this article was to convey to you the importance of freedom of speech and how the internet is an enabling technology for it. It has become very clear from its beginning, to the realization of it as a problem, to many examples of how it is being misused and restricted, that the freedom of the internet as a source of unfiltered information and a forum for free speech is under threat. With each evolution of change and technology we have gotten better chances to integrate as a society and the internet provides the most compelling case for this. Yes there are down sides to it and yes there are areas of it that we wish were not there, but that does not take away from the fact that overall it is an important enabler of our free society. Restricting or controlling free speech and dissemination of ideas on the internet can only serve to further the goals of a controlling few who do not see the values for society, but rather only of their own requirements. We can choose to be quiet like the silent majority, or can choose to voice our opinion and make it count. The platform is there, the freedoms are there, but are we willing to exercise them to practice what we preach, and that is free speech for all? If you are one that belongs to this category then use this as a call to action to work towards an internet for all with the right of free speech for all. Do not let a wonderful human invention that has yielded benefits for millions be controlled by those that do not wish to see it expand. Remember that great things start with a small action and if you take the stand now you will see the results in the future.

References

1. Internet Free Speech ACLU https://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/internet-free-speech

2. Free Speech - The Electronic Frontier Foundation https://www.eff.org/issues/free-speech

3. Internet Freedom https://www.hrw.org/topic/free-speech/internet-freedom

4. So, the U.N. Wants Control of the Internet. What’s the Big Deal? https://aclj.org/free-speech-2/so-un-wants-control-of-the-internet-whats-big-deal

5. Free Expression https://cdt.org/issue/free-expression/

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