Talk:Online Liberty and Freedom of Expression

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Response to the Online Liberty and Freedom of Expression 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 filtration 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?