Online Liberty and Freedom of Expression

From Internet Law Program 2011
Jump to: navigation, search
iLaw Wiki Navigation
Pillar Themes of iLaw
Open Systems/Access · Online Liberty and FOE
The Changing Internet: Cybersecurity · Intellectual Property
Digital Humanities · Cooperation · Privacy
Cross-sectional Themes of iLaw
The History of the Internet
The Global Internet · Interoperability
The Study of the Internet: New Methods for New Technologies
The Future of the Internet
Case Studies
Digital Libraries, Archives, and Rights Registries
Exploring the Arab Spring · Minds for Sale
User Innovation · Mutual Aid
Program Schedule · Program Logistics
Evening Events · Student Projects · Participation
Old iLaw Videos · Mid-Point Check-in


Tuesday, 2:00-3:30pm
Format: Lecture, featuring guest respondents
Lead: John Palfrey
Potential Participants: Bruce Etling, Rob Faris, Ethan Zuckerman, and others

Led by John Palfrey, this session will focus on online liberty and freedom of express and expand on some of the core themes introduced in the preceding sessions by providing an overview of the different phases of content regulation on the Internet. It will engage the audience with questions regarding the ways in which different political contexts shape different methods of and motivations for government control, and how various approaches in different countries inform each other. Respondents will be invited to reflect on key issues, including different forms of government controls and online speech regulation: China (a mix of “traditional” technical filtering with legal and informal regulatory mechanisms); the Arab Spring (just-in-time filtering combined with the arrest and intimidation of bloggers and digital activists); Russia (mostly non-technical, second and third generation controls rather than technical filtering); and US/Western Europe (mostly focused on child pornography and the illegal spread of copyrighted content). They will also grapple with hard questions related the role of intermediaries in response to government requests for user information, content removal or account deactivation and the implications of the current phase of control for free expression and privacy worldwide.

Required Readings


Arab Spring

Digital Tools

Recommended Readings


Arab Spring

Second- and Third-Generation Controls

Russia Project

Related Cases

Student Reflections on this Session

By Clare Selden

In this session, Professor Palfrey presented an overview of the use of technology in limiting access to controversial content during the four phases of development of the Internet. During the “Open Internet” period, the internet was viewed as a separate sphere, which some scholars viewed as being impervious to government regulation (although this was quickly shown not to be the case). The creation of the net enabled greater individual autonomy as well as informal network formation among like-minded individuals, and facilitated collective action. Diverse cultures could also be united by the common language of the virtual space; for example, Global Voices connects diverse communities who wouldn’t otherwise be communicating by translating postings into many languages and facilitating discussion across borders.

In the “Access Denied” phase, states began to think of activities and expression on the Internet as threats needing to be blocked or managed in various ways, and governments began to employ various filtering and blocking mechanisms in order to regulate online speech and conduct. These methods include DNS filtering, internet provider filtering, and blocking specific URLs, all of which prevent information from reaching the recipient who requests it. The OpenNet Initiative monitors the degree to which more than 70 states restrict access to controversial sites at the national level, using a consistent “global basket” of test sites as an index. Some governments, including those of Cuba and North Korea, have gone as far as blocking internet access entirely in order to prevent their citizens from accessing controversial information.

In the “Access Controlled” phase, effective blocking and filtering became more difficult, and alternative methods of controlling the communication of controversial ideas have became more prevalent. These methods include licensing restrictions, mandatory identification of internet users at access points (Turkey), and direct threats of arrest or bodily harm by government officials. Although Eduardo Bertoni pointed out that use of government intimidation to chill free speech is not new, our discussion of the recent intimidation of bloggers in China and various Arab nations (as tracked on Threatened Voices) highlights the tragic efficacy of this alternate approach to the effective suppression of ideas, and illustrates a shift from viewer-targeted methods of internet control to producer-targeted methods.

As we enter the “Access Contested” phase, debate surrounding the right of governments to maintain technological control over their citizens’ access to information remains at the forefront of the discussion, as does the possibility of using internet technology to empower and increase democratic action around the world. Questions raised by this discussion include:

  1. Palfrey points out that “technical filtering is problematic both for censors, who must choose either overbroad or under-inclusive filtering, and citizens, who face challenges to creativity and innovation and a reduction of free expression and privacy.” How should this balance be struck, and what makes that option better than the alternatives? If a filtering regime cannot be implemented in an accurate manner, should it be undertaken at all?
  2. Ethan Zuckerman explains that Global Voices has attempted to address the problem of selective global attention by providing an outlet for news stories from underrepresented countries. However, Zuckerman states that they have not been as effective in setting the agenda in such a way that these stories receive widespread readership. Is this sort of “agenda setting” desirable, or does deliberately emphasizing stories that are underrepresented in mainstream media merely exacerbate the problem of the media telling individuals what stories they should care about? How can we determine whether the right amount of audience attention has been achieved?
  3. If we accept the premise that some government regulation of the content of the internet is necessary (for example, to prevent distribution of child pornography), to what extent should a country’s legal and regulatory restrictions track those that govern similar prohibited offline conduct? Does the global reach of the internet call for stricter regulatory standards than more traditional modes of communication in order to protect the larger population that will be exposed to the information, or do the challenges of enforcing national regulations in the context of a border-transcending medium like the internet imply that governments should only attempt to enforce minimally restrictive requirements?