The internet came to prominence as a tool and pursuit of the masses starting in the early 1990's. The capabilities, depth and breadth of what the internet has to offer have increased exponentially over the ensuing two decades. Such expansion has greatly eased the spread of information (Palfrey, 2010). The ease in which people communicate and disseminate information has created a cause for concern among many different parties that see this as a threat. The threat can be perceived by multiple levels of the populace including individual citizens all the way up to government regimes. The nature of the threat ranges from concerns over online predators to concerns over national security. There is indeed no clear-cut answer that can be applied across the board as the subject can become very murky very quickly. This report seeks to examine the different facts as they exist and what exactly is going on. The pros and cons behind the staunching of online material and activity will also be examined.
Pros of Freedom of Expression
One major plus of freedom of expression is that it can send up a beacon of hope and optimism for people in oppressive regimes and situations. There are many countries that regulate free speech and internet activity (Greengard, 2010). Although these regimes, which include China, are very diligent in regulating what they see as threatening, many of the citizens network and speak their mind irrespective of the potential consequences (Thompson, 2010). This regulation is the subject of much banter, much of it negative, including derision aimed at companies in the Western world such as Google that actively work with the country of China despite its behavior (Greengard, 2012). Google results from Chinese computers are often redacted or users are met with a "page cannot be displayed" prompt (Roberts, 2010). Some ask the question whether China even has the right to do this (Smith, 2010).
Another major plus of free expression on the internet is that the web allows people to mobilize and organize for or against topics that unite them (Penny, 2011). A good example of this was the massive campaign against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) in the United States. Once people caught wind of the laws and its provisions, a litany of people and companies waged a massive web-based campaign against the law. People were urged to call their lawmakers and they did so en masse. Activities and campaigns like this happen all of the time but the anti-SOPA campaign was an example of it working with overwhelmingly effective results. Legislation like spurs action quite quickly becomes it comes across to many as authoritarianism (Calingaert, 2010).
There are mechanisms in place, both localized and widespread, that allow otherwise but one big plus of the internet is the ability to speak one's mind and reach out to others while at the same time remaining anonymous and concealed. Such ability is coveted by many including people that are suspicious of whether their activities and words are tracked online and people that live in fear for whatever reason. People that can live in fear include rape victims or people that otherwise wish to be able to speak candidly without revealing who they are. It is true that this ability can be used in a destructive and negative manner, but there is something to be said of being able to remain discrete and concealed.
Another pro-of freedom of expression is that it is a verification and validation of the values of many of the countries represented by people online. For example, the United States has a provision in its Bill of Rights regarding freedom of speech and any limitations on online speech are typically viewed as a violation of this. That being said, being able to generally speak one's mind with little to no fear of retribution, at least from the government, is often viewed as liberating and cathartic.
Cons of Freedom of Expression
A major con of freedom of expression is that once a statement is made or a picture is posted on the Internet, it is extremely difficult to retract the information or image once it is out there. Such was proven by the legal case of an Argentinian woman who demanded that Yahoo and Google remove racy pictures of her from their search engine results (Rosen, 2012). One major upside or downside of the World Wide Web, depending on one's perspective, is that once something is out there for review, it is often out there permanently. One must move heaven and earth to get around this fact. This is not always a con as having a permanent record that proves words said and actions done can be a good thing when speaking of prosecuting crimes and otherwise proving that something has occurred. However, many view this permanence as an overall negative. This is especially true of people that have momentary lapses in judgment and want to "un-ring the bell."
Another major con of freedom of expression is that some content placed on the web is so vile and abhorrent to the vast majority of people online that it, in the view of most, needs to be removed and prosecuted for at every opportunity. In addition, susceptible parties such as children are shielded from this material using filtering software both at the computer and internet levels. This filtering of the internet to ostensibly protect the vulnerable is generally supported although there are some detractors (Nantai & Cockerline, 2010). There is also a question as to how generally effective the practice even is (Eneman, 2010). Some have argued that education of online users is much more important than any screening that can be done (Essex, 2009). Others argue that sexual education is vital because explicit content will always fall into the hands of minors (2011).
In a vein similar to online child predators is hate speech. National and international groups that have the sole purpose of perpetuating and continuing hate exist all over the internet. In the United States, groups like the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan use the internet to spread their message, add new members and solicit funds from like-minded people. Groups and sites like this like to point to freedom of speech provisions in the United States Constitution. While criminally charging someone for hate speech alone is often tenuous and productive of mixed results, many laws have been formulated to prevent perceived hate speech in certain areas or on certain days like outside election polling places and the like. Also, if a crime such as assault or slander is committed in conjunction with hate speech, the fines and/or jail sentence behind the offense is often enhanced for that reason alone.
A con of freedom of expression that is also very controversial is the idea that allowing unfettered accusations and discourse is actually inherently caustic and negative. This is often said of people that are engaged in discourse on political matters. Many in the news media have derided the increased presence of blogs and other internet postings that relates to public figures such as people in politics, the media and celebrities. Many point to laws and ethics regarding libelous and/or slanderous speech while others point to freedom of expression. Politics as a subject is a different bird because what is deemed to be correct and ethical can vary widely from person to person. In addition, the vehemence and attitudes that often spring forth when people have political motives can be quite telling. When people are literally willing to kill over such matters, it is of no surprise when the online activities related to the subject are also so destructive.
At major issue with stopping actions of libel and slander is that the entity that would typically regulate such matters is the government, whether it is law enforcement or some other similar mechanism. Any shakedown of people engaging in controversial speech will be deemed as justifiable to some and oppressive governmental behavior and/or a violation of free speech rights by others. Unfortunately, many statements and actions can fall within a gray area rather than being clearly illegal and improper.
Another con of freedom of speech is that some material should arguably not be readily available to the public en masse. One example of this are sites that show how to make bombs. Most people would probably argue that such material has no place on the internet because there is no legitimate and proper purpose for wanting that material. That being said, some would argue that just because it is out there and/or just because someone is looking at it does not mean that it will be used.
Related to materials like bomb-making are sites that directly impact the national security of countries. Often, people that frequent sites related to perceived terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah can get the attention of national law enforcement agencies quite quickly. Acting in concert with or otherwise lending support such as money to such groups puts…