A World of Freedom With Chains Attached

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Everyone has heard of the Internet and how it is going to help set the world free. The Internet is the fastest growing form of communication and is becoming more and more commonplace in the average American home. Companies these days do big business over the Internet, and online shopping has grown tremendously in the last few years. For instance, the online auction site eBay sells millions of items every year online. Many companies are making even more plans to expand their business to the Internet. Wireless, borderless communication and the uninterrupted flow of information have been promised to bring democracy, education, and culture to every corner of the world with a phone line. Unfortunately, there have been numerous attempts lately to censor the Internet in the name of “decency.” If the Net is controlled, regulated, restricted, or censored in order to keep it “clean,” it will have severe effects on its capabilities and potential.

In recent years, America and other leading countries’ economies have become increasingly dependent on the need to instantly move large amounts of information across long distances. Computerization has changed everyone’s life in ways that were never before imagined. The global network of interconnected computers allows people to send electronic mail messages across the world in the blink of an eye and stay updated on world events as they happen; the world has become a much smaller place as a result of this global communication and exchange of ideas. There have also become thousands of online “communities” of people who share common interests through message boards, chat rooms, and electronic mailing lists (Wilmott 106).

At present, the Internet is the ultimate demonstration of the first amendment: free speech. Here is a place where people can speak their mind without being punished for what they say or how they choose to say it. The Internet owes its incredible worldwide success to its protection of free speech, not only in America, but also in countries where freedom of speech is not guaranteed. For some, it is the only place where they can speak their mind without fear of political or religious persecution (“Cyberchaos”).

The Net is also one of America's most valuable types of technology; scientists use email for quick and easy communication. They post their current scientific discoveries on online newsgroups so other scientists in the same field of study all over the world can know in minutes.

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"A World of Freedom With Chains Attached." 123HelpMe.com. 23 Mar 2018
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Ordinary people use the Internet for communication, expressing their opinions in the newsgroups, obtaining up-to-date information from the WWW, downloading all types of media files, or just “surfing“ for their own personal enjoyment.

The Internet can also be compared to a church. In many ways the Internet is like a church: it has its council of leaders, every member has an opinion about how things should work, and they can either take part if they choose to or sit back and watch everyone else. It's the choice of the user. The Internet has no president, chief operating officer, or Pope. Single networks or local Internet service providers (ISPs) may have presidents and CEO's, but that is different; there is no single authority figure for the Internet in general. As stated by Frances Hentoff in the article “Indecent Proposal,” "on an info superhighway driven by individuals, there are no cops preventing users from downloading" (Hentoff 1). Users of the Internet have the freedom to express anything they believe. The fact that the Net has no single authority figure creates a problem about what kind of materials should be available on the Net.

The largest controversy that surrounds regulating the Net deals with what type of broadcasting medium it should be considered. The Internet can be viewed in many different ways. It can be considered a carrier of common data, similar to a phone company, which must ignore what is broadcast for privacy reasons. Or, it can be considered a distributor and broadcaster of information, much like a television or radio station, which is solely responsible for what it broadcasts and has to conform to federal standards and FCC regulations for obscenity. This debate is at the core of the censorship matter. Obviously, the Internet is a carrier of information, and not a broadcaster, since it only provides the basic structure for information transfer and sharing. But this frustrates lawmakers. The current body of laws existing today in America does not apply well to the Internet. Is the Internet like a bookstore, where servers cannot be expected to review every title? Is it like a phone company who must ignore what it carries for privacy reasons and is not responsible for what is carried through its service? Or is the Net a form of broadcasting, like a radio or television station, in which the government can monitor, control, and regulate what is broadcast? The trouble is that the Internet can be all or none of these things depending on how it's used. The Internet cannot be viewed as one type of transfer medium under current broadcast definitions (“Muzzling the Internet”). One large difference that sets the Internet apart from a broadcasting media is the fact that one can’t stumble across a vulgar or obscene site without first entering a complicated address or following a link from another source. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, if one wants to find “dirty” material on the Internet, one has to go out and look for it to find it.
The Internet is much more like going into a bookstore and choosing to look at adult magazines than it is like channel surfing on television (Miller 75). The Internet is a great place of entertainment and education, but like all places used by millions of people, it has some dark corners people would rather not have their children explore. Society as a whole generally tries to protect children, but there are no social or physical constraints to Internet surfing. For this reason, there have been numerous attempts at censoring the Net in the name of protecting children. One example is the Communications Decency Act of 1995. The Communications Decency Act, also known as the Internet Censorship Act, was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1995. It would make it a criminal offense to make available to children anything that is indecent, or to send anything indecent with "intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass.” The goal of this bill as written (though not as stated by its proponents), was to try to make all public material on the Internet suitable for young children. The bill would have made certain commercial servers that carry pictures of nudity, like those run by Penthouse or Playboy, be shut down immediately or face prosecution. The same goes for any amateur web site that features nudity, sex talk, or dirty language. Posting any dirty words in an online discussion group, which occurs often, could make one liable for a $50,000 fine and six months in jail. Even if a magazine that commonly runs some of those nasty words in its pages decided to post its contents on-line, its leaders would be held responsible for a $100,000 fine and two years in jail (Levy 78-79). Why does it suddenly become illegal to post something that has been legal for years in print? If it had passed, the bill would also have criminalized private mail. “ ... I can call my brother on the phone and say anything - but if I say it on the Internet, it's illegal" (Levy 53).

This government attempt at censorship is just one example. There have been other attempts to regulate what is put on the Net, and most of the time, they aim to ban or outlaw online pornography, websites with racist ideas, or any other type of violent or offensive material that is not appropriate for children or politically correct. For example, there have been other bills introduced to the Senate in more recent years that would attempt to censor parts of the Internet. The “Family-Friendly Internet Access Act of 1997,” introduced by Representative McDade of Pennsylvania, would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to require Internet access providers to provide screening software for parents. A similar bill introduced by a California representative, “Internet Freedom and Child Protection Act,” would also require ISPs to provide filtering software to all subscribers (“Current Internet Censorship Efforts”). These are just a few examples of government attempts to regulate the Internet. However, it can be shown that censoring the Internet is impossible, as well as harmful to the free speech it provides to all its users.
It must be understood that censoring the Net is technically impossible. According to Julian Dibbel, "in principle, it is impossible to monitor all material being transmitted on the Internet. Considering the difficulties with international boundaries, a licensing system faces many obvious practical hurdles" (“Muzzling the Internet”). Also described by Dibbel, "Any good Computer Science graduate can create a completely secure encryption system for concealment purposes. The material can even be disguised, for example hidden 'inside' a perfectly innocuous picture" (“Muzzling the Internet”). Therefore, if a person wants to put offensive material online, he or she can design a formula to encrypt the material according to a key, and secretly tell other users what the key is. In this way, they can retrieve the same material and side step the government censorship.

Most Internet users are enjoying their freedom of speech on the Net, which is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment of the United States. It is believed by many that the Internet provides greater freedom of speech and press than anything before in our history. "Heavy-handed attempts to impose restrictions on the unruly but incredibly creative anarchy of the Net could kill the spirit of cooperative knowledge-sharing that makes the Net valuable to millions" (Rheingold). The freedom of idea expression is what makes the Internet important and enjoyable, and it should not be suppressed for any reason.

Additionally, only a very small portion of the Net contains offensive material. Most people do not use the Net for pornography. There is no doubt that porn is popular. But the Net is mostly being used for communication and information exchange, and only a tiny portion of the Net contains pornography and other offensive material. While people are concerned about Internet pornography, it is true that it is often perfectly legal; for example, pornography is legal in video and magazines. Therefore, it is inconsistent to ban the Internet equivalents (“Legal Definition...”). According to Rheingold, "Citizens should have the right to restrict the information flow into their homes. They should be able to exclude from their home any subject matter that they do not want their children to see. But sooner or later, their children will be exposed to everything from which they have shielded them... " (Rheingold).

The Internet is definitely not the only medium for teenagers to find inappropriate material. If kids want to get a hold of dirty pictures or magazines, there are many other ways to find them besides the Internet. If the purpose of censorship is to prevent minors from being exposed to indecent material, not only the Net has to be censored. Censoring the Net will only eliminate one single medium for children to find this material. Government censorship is not the solution to the problem, and other measures that have the same effects as censorship can be used. For example, there are many various software programs that can be purchased or downloaded for free which block out web sites with offensive language or words. Programs such as Net Nanny, Cyber Patrol, and Net Watch can be set up by parents’ specifications to block access to websites that contain any key words (chosen by parents) or foul language that may be unsuitable for children. While these programs have many flaws (a completely appropriate website on breast cancer could be blocked), they are definitely a much smarter and fairer alternative to government censorship (“Parental Control Ware”).

In concluson, the Internet is one of the world’s greatest assets to freedom of speech and expression, and it has the potential to bring education and better communication to every part of the world. All types of people, companies, and families use it, and its atmosphere of free speech and equality has made it hugely popular. However, government attempts to censor the Internet in the name of protecting children can only have harmful effects. Censoring the Internet will only contribute to stifling its freelance atmosphere and limiting its potential. It also has to be taken into account that indecent or pornographic websites only make up a tiny portion of the Net, and much pornography is legal. The solution to keeping kids from getting into inappropriate websites is to monitor their access, use filtering software, and teach them principles. Censoring the Internet can only be harmful to everyone else who uses it.

Works Cited
Cleaver, Cathleen A. “Cyberchaos: Not First Amendment’s Promise.” [Online].      Available http://www-swiss.ai.mit.edu/6805/articles/cda/cleaver-cyberchaos.html.
     23 March 2001.
“Current Internet Censorship Efforts.” [Online]. Available      www.epic.org/freespeech/censorship. 3 April 2001.
Dibbel, Julian. “Muzzling the Internet.” Time 18 December, 1995: 75.
Hentoff, Frances. "Indecent Proposal." Entertainment Weekly 31 March, 1995.
“Legal Definition of Obscenity/Pornography.” [Online]. Available      http://censorware.net/essays/obscene_jt.html. 23 March 2001.
Levy, Steven. “U.S. v. the Internet.” Newsweek 31 March 1997: 77-79.
Miller, Michael. "Cybersex Shock." PC Magazine 10 Oct. 1995; 75-76.
“Parental Control Ware.” Newsweek 12 February 1996: 12.
Rheingold, Howard. “Rheingold's Tomorrow: Why Censoring Cyberspace is Dangerous &      Futile.” [Online.] Available      http://www.well.com/user/hlr/tomorrow/tomorrowcensor.html.

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