[W]hen men have
realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even
more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct, that the ultimate
good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas, that the best test of truth
is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,
and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried
out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment,
as all life is an experiment.
Oliver Wendell Holmes; Abrams v. United States; In dissent; 250 U.S. 616; 630; 1919.
Information wants to be free, and the Internet
fosters freedom of speech on a global scale.
The Internet is a common area, a
public space like any village square, except that it is the largest common area
that has ever existed. Anything that anybody wishes to say can be heard by
anyone else with access to the Internet, and this world-wide community is
as large and diverse as humanity itself. Therefore, from a practical point
of view, no one
community's standards can govern the type of speech permissible on the Internet.
In the words of John Barlow, a founding member of the Electronic Frontier
-- "In Cyberspace, the First Amendment is a local ordinance".
The principle of freedom of speech is also embedded in the Internet's robust
architecture. In the words of John
Gilmore, another founding member of the EFF -- "The Net interprets censorship
as damage, and routes around it." Because of the Internet's robust design, it is impossible
to completely block access to information except in very limited and controlled
circumstances, such as when blocking access to
a specific site from a home computer, or when using a firewall to block certain
from employees on a workplace network.
If you believe that progress of human civilization depends on individual expression
of new ideas, especially unpopular ideas, then the principle of freedom of
speech is the most important value society can uphold. The
with the Internet the more strongly they generally believe
in the importance of freedom of speech, usually because their personal experience
has convinced them of
the benefits of open expression. The Internet not only provides universal access
to free speech, it also promotes the basic concept of freedom of
believe that there is
value in truth, that human beings on average and over time recognize and value
truth, and that truth is best decided in a free marketplace of ideas, then
the ability of the Internet to promote freedom of speech is very important
A few of the early events that signaled the
power of the Internet to promote freedom of speech are summarized below:
- Tiananmen. During the Tiananmen Square rebellion in China in
1990, the Internet kept Chinese communities around the world, especially in universities,
in touch with the current events through email
and the newsgroups, bypassing all government censorship.
Coup. In 1991 a Soviet computer network
called Relcom stayed online and bypassed an information blackout to keep Soviet
citizens and others around the world in touch with eyewitness accounts and
information about the attempted communist coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.
- Kuwait Invasion. Internet Relay Chat
became well-known to the general public around the world in 1991, when traffic
skyrocketed as users logged on to get up-to-date information on Iraq's invasion
of Baghdad through an Internet link with Kuwait. The links stayed operational
for a week after radio and television broadcasts were cut off. Archives of this
first world famous IRC event can be found here.
- CDA. In 1996 the US Government passed the Communications
Decency Act (CDA) prohibiting distribution of adult material over the Internet,
though the law was widely believed to be unenforceable and unconstitutional.
This gave birth to a blue ribbon campaign to show support for freedom of
the Internet. Many sites placed a black background on their web pages for the
first 24 hours after the CDA passed. A
few months later a three-judge panel imposed an injunction against the law's
enforcement, pending resolution of lawsuits launched by several civil liberties
the law was subsequently found be be unconstitutional.
- National Restrictions. In 1996 many countries around
the world became frightened of the freedom of speech associated with the
mandated that Internet users must register with the police. Germany banned access
to some adult newsgroups on Compuserve. Saudi Arabia restricted Internet
to universities and hospitals. Singapore mandated that political and religious
sites must register with the government. New Zealand courts ruled that
disks are a type of "publication" that can be censored. None of these efforts
had much lasting effect.
1996, a radio station in Yugoslavia bravely exercised their right to freedom
of speech and
continued to broadcast over the Internet after all other normal broadcasting
was shut down by
of the last
in Europe, later overthrown.