Freedom for surfers

The Internet is our most democratic medium. Governments should not restrict it

Share
Related Topics
An American court has examined the Internet, compared it to the older mass media - newspapers, radio and television - and found it uniquely valuable. The three judges sitting in Pennsylvania described it "as the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed". It represented an ideal, a medium in which there could be a free trade in ideas. The judges spent months listening to expert argument. Their decision spoke in the heightened terms of an historic ruling: "The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green or the mails." And as it is seamlessly global, the decision affects us. It is our Internet, too.

The court had been asked to protect the freedom of expression guaranteed by the American constitution. The plaintiffs, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the Communications Decency Act signed into law last February, making it a criminal offence to transmit any "indecent"or "patently offensive" material on the Internet, was unconstitutional.

Certainly, sexually explicit material does exist on the Internet, although almost all of it is preceded by warnings. Moreover older laws covering obscenity and child pornography remain fully operative; the US Justice Department has successfully used them recently to prosecute on-line cases. But beyond this, communication on the Internet can be, as the judges noted, unfiltered, unpolished and unconventional, sexually controversial and vulgar - "in a word indecent". It is into this new area that the Communications Decency Act extended the law.

The plaintiffs' objection was that it would prohibit the transmission of some literary, artistic and educational material of value to minors as well as adults. For this reason, the new law's opponents included Aids organisations, the Planned Parenthood Association, booksellers' associations, writers' groups, and single-issue pressure groups such as Stop Prisoner Rape and Human Rights Watch.

What did the Court admire so much about the Internet? One feature is that nobody owns, controls or dominates this global web of computers and computer networks, linked together by the world's telephone system. It is like the roads in this country except that the Internet does not belong to anybody, it exists because the operators of computers and of computer networks in different countries have decided to use a common method or language for transferring data. They have been concerned only with how quickly a packet of data travels around the Internet and not with the content of these missives.

Secondly, the Internet is inexpensive and thus as open to minority interests as to mainstream concerns. For the price of a home computer and a modem linking it to the telephone system, you can connect to and thereby address the world. You could participate, for instance, in the 15,000 or so discussion groups or you could create your own Web site (a Web site comprises material assembled on your computer which any one of the 40 million people using the Internet can call up on to their own computer). Compare this with the effort, time and money required to get a book published, or a newspaper launched or a television service under way.

When challenged, the US Government said that providers of material on the Internet which might be unsuitable could take steps, rather as cinemas do, to prevent children reaching it. They might ask "visitors" to show that they had a credit card, which would rule out minors. Or they could tag doubtful material so that it could be filtered out by special software. The trouble with the first is that the credit card companies would not co-operate in verification unless a commercial transaction is involved. The drawback to the second is that it would be expensive for non-profit organisations to carry out even if the relevant technology existed.

Fortunately, without government prompting, ratings services and software applications are being designed to help parents limit their children's access to the Internet. A Platform for Internet Content Selection or PICS has been launched which provides a positive rating of Web sites. And there is software which will route users to only those sites and no others.

Taking all this into account, the three judges declared the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional. One of the judges said that the Internet may fairly be regarded as a "never ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not ... interrupt that conversation."

Such a result could not be obtained under Britain's present constitutional arrangements. We have no entrenched right to freedom of expression. A bill similar to the Communications Decency Act could quite easily pass through Parliament and become unchallenged law. While the tradition of free speech in the United Kingdom is deep rooted, in the United States it is sacred. That is why the US Supreme Court could declare 20 years ago that to lose freedom of expression, for even minimal periods of time, "unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury".

To arrive at the American level of safeguards, we would have to write Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law. This states that "everyone has the right to freedom of expression ... without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers". But it adds that "this article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises". Newspapers are not on this list of media where special safeguards can be employed. Nor, according to the American court, should the Internet.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Supply Teachers needed in Bolton!

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you a ...

English Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: ENGLISH TEACHER REQUIREDWe are ...

Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Science Teacher

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger  

Will Cuddlr do for hugging what Tinder and Grindr did for sex?

Jessica Brown Jessica Brown
Retail store Joy has sparked a social media backlash with its response to a customer who said one of its cards is offensive to people with bipolar  

Hey Joy, mocking people with bipolar isn't funny — it's offensive

Ellabell Risbridger
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments