Freedom of Speech & Censorship on the Internet

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Freedom of Speech & Censorship on the Internet


With more and more frequency the newspapers are reporting instances of school children distributing disks of pornographic images which they have downloaded from the net and recently a university student was found to be operating such a site for material. On November 11, an Associated Press release (Phillips,1994) reported that Carnegie Mellon University had decided to block its users from accessing sexually explicit materials through the Internet: the university's president feared that the university could be prosecuted under state pornography laws if it did not control the access. Within the last week Towson State has prevented access to all of the alt.* groups on the Usenet which include* which has sexually explicit pictures. Towson State has also included a warning on their home page that there may be pornographic material on the Internet. Pornographic material is not the only material to be found on the net which can raise questions of censorship and control: discussion of racial, political, religious and sexual topics all run the risk of offending someone, somewhere, leading to demands for control of the Internet. The question of censorship may also be raised in some unexpected places: one newsgroup is the rec.humor list, which is a collection of jokes submitted to subscribers. There are straightforwardly rude jokes but others are politically incorrect, focusing on sexual stereotypes, mothers-in-law, women and so on.
It has been suggested (Interpersonal Computing and Technology, 1994) that discretionary warning labels could be attached to potentially offensive material. With warning labels like those on records this may serve to whet appetites. Warning labels involve some sort of judging and then the question is raised as to who shall be the judge. The Internet is world-wide so would the First Amendment apply in Germany? The material on the Internet which is grossly offensive by any standards, such as paedophile material, is extremely difficult to find because of its small amounts. Of the 976 obscenity cases handled between 1991 and 1993 only 11 involved computer files, while 0.3% of the obscene material seized by Customs staff in 1992-93 were computer items (Cornwall, 1994). This paper considers the question of censorship on the Internet - does it exist, in what form, should it exist and what should be censored?

The Internet

To understand many of the questions raised an understanding of how the Internet originated is important.

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"Freedom of Speech & Censorship on the Internet." 26 Sep 2017
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The internet grew out of developments in packet switching and distributed computer networks designed to be secure in time of war: distributed computer networks are less susceptible to damage because transmissions can be routed around the damage. Standard protocols ensure that any platform can be connected to this network and this meant that local area networks(LANs) could be linked while retaining all the advantages of LANs, specifically the need not to rely on a single timesharing computer. These developments have continued through the 1970's and 1980's and now we are at the Internet as we know it. The Internet is an informal network of networks spanning the globe, with almost 4 million hosts, each of which may be serving anywhere between one and 2 million users. Theorists believe that by the year 2003 everyone in the world could be connected to the Internet (Treese, 1994). Alongside this growth that is aided by availability of low-cost computers, free software and inexpensive telecommunications, is the most important fact that the Internet is not controlled by any single authority. The Internet Society (ISOC) is a voluntary organization responsible for technical standards while the Internet Engineering Task Force (ITF) handles operational and technical problems, but no single body can be said to control the internet and what is distributed over it.

Quality and content

The previous fact leads to two related issues. First, there is no overall set of standards to apply to the quality of material available over the Internet, quality meaning factors like accuracy, currency, editing and updating policies. Right now quality control is only exercised by the people who make the documents and because of that the standards are sometimes low. There is also a problem of currency and revision as well as the accuracy of the original material and the most common complaint that out-of-date items are being re-found, sometimes after several years (Cockerill, 1994).
Secondly, the anarchic nature means that there is little or no control over the content of documents posted over the Internet. National governments may try to apply legislation but it is very difficult to prevent a range of potentially offensive material from being distributed once that material has already been disseminated. Not only that but the USA could be protected by the First Amendment. Also, the offense usually is one of possession of material so once the material is distributed over the Internet it is out of the hands of the main offender. The Internet is international and it is not possible to stop material at the border in the same way that books and magazines can be stopped, therefore, it is left up to individual organizations like Carnegie Mellon. This is an example of how technical developments have overtaken the ability of the national governments to control the dissemination of information on a national scale. It is not certain whether legislation applying to, for example, obscene publications, can be applied to digitized material because the question that is asked is whether or not it is published. What may be legal in one country is illegal in another: German law prohibits claims that the Holocaust did not happen, but this does not stop white supremacists from the US or another country from transmitting this claim to their sympathizers in Germany. This is a complicated issue because usually there is a feature of different cultures, for example, codes for women's dress in Islamic counties. It would be very difficult to find a common denominator that everyone could agree upon that should be censored. Even at an individual level what is offensive to one person may not be offensive to another. This debate is not new, it is just a new medium that it is taking place over. Internet dissemination is fast, less agreeable to control by governments, it is almost global and the actual potential audience is huge. It is also less public: the same images can be sent to your terminal in your own room.

Material on the Internet: what should be censored?

What is the range of material on the Internet which could cause offense and generate demands for censorship? It is not possible to cover all the possibilities but a highly selective list would prove that censorship it not just about pornography. A look at the alt.* newsgoups would contain material offensive to some people and that is precisely the problem. The alt.* newsgroups are just the most visible groups. If there really were a list it would probably contain anything that caused debate, such as: religion, sex, drugs, politics, alternative lifestyles and astrology, just to name some. It is also possible to visit web sites which seem relatively unoffensive and by following links to other subjects accidentally stumble upon something that might be found offensive. Another question of censorship can be raised too, what about subjects that people feel are a waste of valuable Internet resources- "should these be censored as a waste?" The question is raised: why should a university provide the platform to discuss morning cartoons or your favorite movie star? By looking at these questions once again you must ask if it is possible to agree on what should be censored and can we agree that censorship should be exercised at all? The actions of Towson State and other universities can be explained as a conformity with local legislation, shifting the responsibility for censorship to the state, which introduces various laws which limit what we can see and read or say and write. Censorship may be applied to material which governments judge as damaging to some or all of society (e.g., pornography) or to preserve state security. One of the Internet's most popular and visited sites is Yahoo, a huge index of Internet sites that 1.4 million people use per week as a reference center to guide them around the vast Internet. Yahoo tracks and categorizes about 50,000 different sites around the Internet, ranging from home pages of computer companies to on-line catalogs to news sources. 217 of those 50,000 sites are listed under the category of sex which is 0.4 percent of the total. Many of the sites under the heading relate to the discussion of health issues. Many others are commercial sites like Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler magazines. Yahoo's co-founder acknowledges that the sites his index tracks are a fraction of the "millions" of places people can travel on the Internet but he said it is a good representative sample (O'Conner, 1995).

Who should censor the Internet and how?

Due to the lack of a controlling body and the Internet's anarchic nature, who could act as a censor of the material stored and distributed over the Internet? This is an extremely important issue because the censor or censors would have an enormous amount of power. Right now, it is unlikely that any group exists that could take this role and, it is most likely going to fall on individual organizations, like Towson State, to limit what can be received, as in the alt.* groups. Also, who could be held responsible for what is distributed over the various sections of the Internet, there are many divisions, such as: private email, public databases and bulletin boards, plus sites maintained in both the public and private sector. Is the moderator of an email discussion list to be held responsible for the contributions of subscribers? Most likely. The President of the Internet Society has indicated that the ISOC has drafted guidelines for behavior on the net but this will probably not deter anti-Semitic and racist groups because it is a form of free speech. As the Internet becomes even more commercial there will probably be less forms of offensive material because these large corporations will censor anything that may offend. The best way to think about the Internet is to think of it as a huge river. If you think of it that way, preventing access to newsgroups is easy because all that is required is to cut out the link coming into an organization, thought this could have the effect of cutting off other organizations further down the so-called river, unless secondary feeds, or tributaries, can be arranged. That is not a complete solution, though, because it is possible to obtain newsgroup feeds from other sources. Material from the Internet is much more difficult to control because of the nature of the net. It is largely for this reason that governments will have to fall back on legislation over possession, rather than distribution. The only other solution, right now, is for organizations to licences sites and then have the servers use their power to exert control over the content or the space and then licences would be withdrawn as a means of punishment or censorship. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has spoken out against a proposed government ban on sexually explicit material on the Internet, calling it "clearly a violation of free speech and...a violation of the rights of adults to communicate with each other." Even with Gingrich's support for free speech there was an overwhelming vote in early June, the Senate amended a telecommunications bill to make it a criminal offense to place "indecent" material on-line anywhere children might view it. After the Oklahoma City bombing, a prominent Jewish group called for the monitoring of hate groups on the Internet (O'Connor, 1995). Currently, such a move is strongly opposed by most of the Internet users because that would ruin the whole anarchic nature of the net where information is exchanged freely and without undue obstacles. A major consideration should be the balance of control and freedom of expression and information.


Currently, there are not any absolute solutions because of the nature of the Internet. There are some suggestions:

- Parents can teach children safe behavior on the Internet just as they teach them to deal with the dangers present in the real world. - Schools should develop acceptable use policies which establish clear guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. - We should teach all new users to use common courtesy whenever they participate in networking activities.

- All concerned networkers need to act responsibly and encourage their peers to do likewise.

- Inappropriate activities should be dealt with in a manner which respects the privacy, intellectual freedom and human rights of all concerned. - Concerned parents should purchase and use blocking software to control sites and material they don't want their children to access. There is also various types of Internet control software like Surfwatch and CyberSitter which are available by email from Classroom Connect (Voicenet,1995). The best idea is to strengthen the freedom of information which it offers and accept the consequence that some material will be distributed which individuals will find offensive. Then, our responsibility is to ensure that the content of such material is made clear, to prevent anyone from wandering into it innocently.

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