Freedom of Expression

Free Speech

Freedom of Speech is an inherent right granted to all citizens of the United States. So fundamental of a right is it that it has stood the test of time and the invention of many paradigmic shifts in media. There is no doubt that, in this new digital age that we are entering, Freedom of expression will continue to be one of the cornerstones on which our society is based. It remains to be seen, however, how this age old doctrine will adapt to the new paradigm. How the Supreme Court will interpret the First Amendment in light of new media remains to be seen. When confronted with restrictions on some electronic media--telegraph and telephone communications and over-the-air radio and television broadcasting--the Court has assumed that "differences in the characteristics of new media justify differences in the First Amendment standards applied to them." (14)This may prove to be true with the Internet as well.

Pornography on the Internet

The hottest topic in First Amendment application for the Internet has been the plethora of pornagraphy and its ease of accesibility, especially for minors. "There are two difficult issues when you examine the pornographic material found on the internet. First, how do you define obscene? Second, who sets the rules? The American government attempted to solve the problem by passing an Act, the Communication Decency Act (CDA), which would regulate pornographic material on the internet. This act made it illegal to send anything that could be considered obscene to another person with a harmful intent."(15)  

A central problem with most legislative initiatives is the effort required to adapt the use of the traditional obscenity test to the demands of the new electronic climate. In Miller v. California, the court set forth the traditional test for obscenity. "The Miller test provides that sexual speech is protect unless obscene; and obscene speech appeals to the prurient interest, is patently offensive according to relevant community standards, and when taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Of these problems, the most significant is the use of the "contemporary community standards" portion of the test. In Miller, the court established the meaning of this portion of the test by explaining what the standard does not mean-- contemporary community standards are not national standards. Without a national community standard, the Miller test will be difficult to impose on Internet users because the Internet links together people, nationally and internationally, with different community standards. "(16)

Censorship Efforts

Threre are four proposals for protecting children from unsuitable material. The first three may not be feasible whiel the fourth is very promising.

  1. Censor "Internet content" at its source. While this might be achieved, at tremendous social cost, within a single country, it is obviously impossible on a global scale.
  2. Install simple software in the user's PC to detect "banned" words. Thus an incoming text file which includes the word "breast" could be blocked entirely. This cannot work with image files and is such a blunt and poorly directed approach as to be unworkable.
  3. Block information packets being sent to or from particular IP addresses. This can be accomplished in the home PC or, with much greater difficulty, in the ISP's router. The immediate effect is to block all communication with specific computers - for instance a single computer which provides email, FTP, WWW and many other services for an entire university.
    This "IP address blocking" is a coarse and disruptive method of blocking access to Internet resources. It is also completely ineffective, since even a child can configure their WWW browser to use one of the many publicly accessible HTTP proxy servers anywhere in the world. This enables them to access any site via the proxy - completely bypassing local barriers to particular IP addresses.
  4. Use software to control access according to PICS ratings labels. Netscape, Microsoft and other companies plan to integrate this into their browser products by late 1996. This software uses external sources of ratings about Internet resources, enabling adults to fine tune the access criteria for each child in their care.(17)

(18) (19) (20)