Internet Freedom of Speech

[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.

Justice 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 Foundation (EFF) — “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 sites 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 more experience someone has 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 speech. If you believe that there is an inherent 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 indeed.

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 emailand the newsgroups, bypassing all government censorship.
  • Russian 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 up-to-date information about the attempted communist coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • Kuwait Invasion. Internet Relay Chatbecame 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, even 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 speech on 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 groups, and 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 Internet. China mandated that Internet users must register with the police. Germany banned access to some adult newsgroups on Compuserve. Saudi Arabia restricted Internet access to universities and hospitals. Singapore mandated that political and religious sites must register with the government. New Zealand courts ruled that computer disks are a type of “publication” that can be censored. None of these efforts had much lasting effect.
  • Yugoslavia. 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 one of the last remaining dictatorial governments in Europe, later overthrown.