Essay: Freedom of expression on the internet

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  • Freedom of expression on the internet
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1. Introduction
This study examines the practice of freedom of expression on the Internet. There is no way that Internet should be discussed disregarding the major tenets of free speech/freedom of expression. Questions like how to strike a balance between freedom of expression and regulation of hate speech on the Internet in order to avoid internet censorship forms the underlying thesis in this paper and is core to the discussion. The debate shall be limited to whether regulation of the Internet (including regulation of hate speech) should be kept to the minimum in order to empower individuals to make up their own minds on important issues which increases the likelihood that they will become active participants in democracy as opposed to regulation of the Internet which may result into total curtailment of freedom of expression on the Internet and thereby create Internet censorship. The paper shall discuss the extent to which the government(s) should be allowed to ban hate speech on the Internet, without necessarily infringing the right to freedom of expression and causing Internet censorship.
Though originally lauded and praised as a wonderful medium of communication and the epitome of freedom of expression, the Internet as a medium of communication has produced increased tensions especially in relation to the hate speech, defamation, indecent speech, and pornography among others. In this paper, I will in the interest of space and relevance to the topic under study restrict my discussion to hate speech on the Internet. The Internet provides purveyors of hate materials with a new method of distribution, and has left some questioning whether current laws are obsolete.
It offers the means for any individual with access to a computer and a gateway to the Internet to participate in a free flow of information and ideas with others across the world. Yet that very potential to transcend national borders and impart information
regardless of frontiers means that the Internet is also the subject of concerted efforts by governments to restrict freedoms and violate basic human rights such as the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of information.2
In some countries where dissent is suppressed, the struggle for freedom of expression is now taking place online as governments devote increasing resources and attention to controlling access to information on the Internet and to surveillance of users. Their objective is often to prevent dissemination of information that is critical of them, as well as to track and monitor dissidents, some of whom may subsequently be imprisoned
for exercising their right to freedom of expression.3 The Internet itself can become a tool of repression where the monitoring of communications, the censoring and filtering of information and the amassing of immense databanks of information enhance the ability of repressive governments to restrict the freedoms and basic human rights of their citizens. Such national restrictions can affect not just those living in that country but all who seek to impart or receive information about it.
At the apex of international human rights instruments lies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Its provisions dealing expressly with freedom of expression are set out in Art 19, which states:
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impact information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression as proclaimed in article 19 of the
UDHR constitutes a cornerstone of democratic society. The right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom of information, is an absolute prerequisite for a democratic society. Under no circumstances should a person be imprisoned for expression of his views
As Mill stated in On Liberty, it is morally important to protect freedom of expression. One reason is that freedom of expression is a freedom that intrinsically matters a lot to most people. It involves both the freedom to express our beliefs and values, and the freedom to be informed by the publicly expressed beliefs and values of others. A second reason that it is morally important to protect freedom of expression is that freedom of expression typically promotes the discovery of, and the respect for, the truth.
By common sense, it is unethical for the state to impose any form of censorship. However, censorship itself is a long-lasting operation (Oboler, 1980:80), and as such it has been part of human history. There is no evidence that it is likely to decrease (Robotham & Shields, 1982:58); in fact it seems to be increasing in some countries such as the US and China. It came as the result of concerns raised by groups such as parents, teachers and the clergy as well as politicians, political candidates, law-enforcement officials, school administrators or board members and trustees of various organizations (Robotham & Shields, 1982:58). There are various reasons for censorship; sometimes information is censored because of political, social, economic, religious, philosophical, moral, ideological, military, corporate, and educational reasons, where people feel material offers an attack on themselves and their personal values (Oboler, 1980). The focus and the degree of such censorship differ between countries. Censorship is evident in various contexts such as public libraries (Thompson, 1975), school libraries (Oboler, 1980), and in press as evidenced in the monograph on censorship and the press in Britain and the Netherlands edited by Duke and Tamse (1987). Such censorship often takes the form of e.g. age restriction and parental guidance. It is also evident in other contexts such as theatre, religion and politics as revealed in a monograph edited by Hadfield (2001) on literature and censorship in England. In that monograph there is also evidence that censorship was applied to educational sources, music and entertainment, pictures, etc. Therefore, censorship can take many forms. For instance, McDonald (1993:5) alludes to voluntary censorship which occurs when the librarian, as a result of real or anticipated pressures from school boards and communities, removes or restricts resources or does not purchase certain titles.
The government is the most important enforcer of censorship as will be reflected in the country reports. The state can also block Web pages, websites and other Internet information resources. Various means of filtering by the State can be noted (e.g. as discussed in Access Contested: Security, Identity; and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace (Deibert et al., 2012), Access Controlled: the Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace (Deibert et al., 2010) and Access Denied: the Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering (Deibert et al., 2008). Faris and Villeneuve (2008:7) offer a list of various categories of information subject to Internet filtering. These include the more obvious such as political transformation and information by opposition parties, political reform, legal reform and government, minority rights and ethnic content, as well as women’s rights, hate speech, public health, minority faith, free e-mail, pornography, commercial sites, groups and social networking.
One of the major concerns of Internet use is the freedom to post information on the Web which is unlimited in some instances without a review process. It is a platform where anyone can post a professional-looking website that contains biased, incorrect, or dangerous information (Colaric, 2003). Therefore, there is serious concern especially when it comes to letting children use the Web, because the credibility of some websites is questionable. Although children and everyone using the Web, need to learn to analyze and challenge the authority of documents on the Web, and not just assume the document is credible (Colaric, 2003), it is still not known at all if children are able to do this and at what stage they can do it. Thus it is often argued that censorship may be useful when it comes to children.
According to Depken II (2006) concerns of Internet use that led to censorship of the Internet have focused on a wide range of topics, including pornography, hate speech, and bomb’making instructions. The justification for censorship of such content is that this would lead to a greater 9 social good, even if individuals are limited in what they can consume on the Internet. Hence, Internet censorship movements have taken two predominant forms to limit what can be viewed or what can be posted on the Internet (Depken II, 2006). Under these circumstances, it is a no-brainer to agree that censorship needs to be practiced within a legal framework in order to be implemented effectively. Some argue that governments should not be the only one responsible for censorship, other parties such as Internet users, school librarians and educators should also be responsible for censorship. The perceived need for information filtering is an inevitable consequence of the information explosion. Whether it is considered for good or for evil, the selection or de-selection of information is necessary, given each individual’s ability to absorb and to discriminate information (Malley, 1990).
However, whether it’s copyrighted songs in America or political dissent in Iran, the goal is the same, it is only the targeted material that varies. Countries differ not only in their intent to limit access to material on-line, but in the content they ban, the precision of their blocking, and the voice they offer citizens in decision making China is a nation which has traditionally kept the dissemination of information and freedom of expression to a minimum. Therefore, there is a dilemma between the Internet’s seemingly limitless potential for global communication and the Chinese government’s desire to control the flow of information in and out of the country (Dickinson, 1997). Gorman (2005) is of the opinion that any 14 sensible view of the Internet must admit that some sort of censorship or regulation is necessary, and this is put into practice differently by different societies. China operates the world’s most extensive and sophisticated Internet censorship system, yet rarely admits it filters information. Saudi Arabia discloses its on-line censorship and elucidates its underlying rationales. The Chinese filtering apparatus is multilayered. Users are not informed when they are prevented from reaching proscribed material; instead, their Internet connections are re-set, or their e-mail messages never reach their destinations (Bambauer, 2009a).
In the past few years, Micro-blog sites (weibo), similar to Twitter,17 have become, according to some experts, the country’s ‘most important public sphere,’ the ‘most prominent place for free speech,’ and the most important source of news.18 There are reportedly 300 million microbloggers on platforms provided by major Chinese Internet service providers such as Sina and Tencent. They have been at the forefront of exposing official malfeasance, corruption, and other sensitive news. In July 2011, for example, micro bloggers broke the news about the high speed train crash near the city of Wenzhou that killed 40 passengers, as the government attempted to control coverage and official news outlets delayed reporting.
In the US, The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA, H.R. 3261) is a dangerous new ‘anti-piracy’ bill being debated in the House of Representatives. Supporters claim that SOPA targets ‘rogue’ foreign websites that encourage online infringement, but the bill’s vague language would create devastating new tools for silencing legitimate speech all around the web. In spite of historic opposition from a diverse coalition including civil liberties and human rights organizations, tech industry leaders, security experts, legal scholars, bipartisan legislators, and many more, the bill is moving quickly through Congress, fueled by massive infusions of cash from big content companies. What can we do to stop this disastrous legislation? It’s time to pick up the phone and call your Representative in Washington, and let her know that we won’t stand for this Internet blacklist bill. Here’s some facts to help her understand why: ?? SOPA gives individuals and corporations unprecedented power to silence speech online. Under SOPA, individuals and corporations could send a notice to a site’s payment partners, requiring those partners to cut the site off ‘ even if the site could never be held liable for infringement in a U.S. court. Since many sites depend on this revenue to cover operational costs, even one accusation of infringement could be ruinous. ?? SOPA gives the government even more power to censor. The Attorney General can ‘disappear’ websites by creating a blacklist and requiring service providers (such as search engines and domain services) to block the sites on the list. ?? SOPA uses vague language that is sure to be abused. The bill targets nearly any site that hosts user-generated content, or even just has a search function, by failing to provide protections for legal speech. ?? SOPA would not stop online piracy. The powerful tools granted to the Attorney General would present major obstacles to casual users, but would be trivial for dedicated and technically savvy users to circumvent.
In the name of censopship.
Cohen (1997) identifies a number of concerns common to many countries that lead to censorship, he stressed that national security is the main rationale why censorship is essential to tackle the so-called cyber terrorism. Some scholars believe that cyber terrorism does exist and, in long term, could be a real threat to any state since terrorists can use cyber tools as a tactic to spread terror and advance their agenda. However, even the greatest minds of today can’t agree on what is cyberterrorism. Without a common language, constructive conversations are unlikely to take place.
Furthermore, a lot of scholars even suggest that cyberterrorism does not exist. Weimann states that fears of cyberterrorism are exaggerated and that no case of cyberterrorism has been recorded and that terrorist have not used cyberspace as a weapon or target. This is also pointed out that there is only anecdotal evidence of the use of cyberterrorism and that cyberterrorism is not a very efficient substitute for traditional tools like bombs and therefore terrorist are not likely to use it (Jones, 2007). On the basis of these statements it is therefore possible to argue that cyberterrorism does not exist.
for example, Weimann limits the term ‘cyberterrorism” to ‘the use of computer network tools to harm or shut down critical national infrastructures (such as energy, transportation, government operations)’. Hua and Bapna define the term similarly, as, ‘an activity implemented by computer, network, Internet, and IT intended to interfere with the political, social, or economic functioning of a group, organization, or country; or to induce physical violence or fear; motivated by traditional terrorism ideologies.’ An early contribution by Pollitt also added an actor-specific qualification: ‘Cyberterrorism is the premeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs, and data which result in violence against noncombatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents.’ In his view, ‘For cyberterrorism to have any meaning, we must be able to differentiate it from other kinds of computer abuse such as computer crime, economic espionage, or information warfare.’ Discussions of the utility of a far broader understanding of this term include Gordon and Ford’s exploration of the Internet’s penetration into all aspects of ‘the terrorism matrix’. In their view, the dominant focus on ‘pure cyberterrorism’ (terrorist activities carried out entirely or primarily in the virtual world) is a potentially costly one given its potential to obscure other types of terrorism online.
regards cyberterrorism as a subset of this broader category, and so states that an attack only qualifies as cyberterrorist if all components of the definition of terrorism have been satisfied. Michael Stohl, for example, has argued that we should, ‘restrict cyber terrorism to activities which in addition to their cyber component have the commonly agreed upon components of terrorism’. This, he explains, preserves the distinction between cybercrime and cyberterrorism. On this approach, exemplified also by Pollitt’s definition quoted above, for an attack to qualify as cyberterrorist it must result in violence (or the threat thereof). So if an extremist group were to interfere with the computers of a nation’s Stock Exchange and cause severe economic damage this would not constitute cyberterrorism. In contrast, if the same group interfered with air traffic control system and caused two passenger aircraft to collide in mid-air this would. As Collin succinctly puts it, cyberterrorism is ‘hacking with a body count’. From this, it follows that a definition of cyberterrorism is not strictly necessary. Cyberterrorist attacks already fall within the definition of terrorism, and the cyber prefix denotes nothing more than the means employed. We do not specify the means used in other forms of terrorism (no-one uses such terms as pyro-terrorism, aero-terrorism or hydro-terrorism), and so there is no need for a separate subcategory of cyberterrorism. As Gordon and Ford explain:
‘We do not use the term ‘ice pick terrorism’ to define bombings of ice-pick factories, nor would we use it to define terrorism carried out with ice picks. Thus, we question the use of the term cyberterrorism to describe just any sort of threat or crime carried out with or against computers in general.’
All said and done, it is way too reckless to suggest that there is no such thing as cyberterrorism. In an era of globalization, almost everything is conducted virtually, from money transfers to product purchases. National security and other critical infrastructure systems are also housed virtually. It seems logical then that the use of cyber terrorism may accomplish more tasks for terrorists. Terrorists easily can disrupt these networks through viruses or hack computers to accomplish 1) a loss of money for the victim 2) to raise funds 3) to send a message or 4) to acquire important information to plan or carry out a more dangerous attack (). There are empirical examples of this. In 1998, the Tamil Tigers ‘wiped’ 800 government emails with a message reading ‘We are the internet Black Tigers and we’re doing this to disrupt your communications.'() The Saudi Oil Company, Aramco, had a deadly virus reach its computers ‘annihilating’ all the data on 35,000 computers with a picture of the American flag burning on the desktop.()
While terrorist groups have not committed hundreds of cyber-attacks, it is important to consider that virtual tools allow them to impact more societies because of the interdependence on the cyber world. Terrorist groups already use the internet to recruit people and raise money. The internet ‘offers anonymity, interactivity and a resilient infrastructure. No matter where people are in the world, they can be connected instantly to others who sympathize with their cause.'(15) Al-Shabaab used twitter as a tool to communicate their horrific acts at Westgate Mall.() This is just an example of how social media platforms could allow terrorists to employ psychological warfare which can reach larger audiences. Cyber tools can lead to a ‘soft war’ that will allow some terror groups to develop ‘offensive cyber capabilities.'()
Just as our computer systems will need constant updates to handle cyber intrusions, it is important that the dialogue on how terrorists can use different mechanisms to advance their agenda constantly evolve as well. It is a mistake for the global community to downplay the means and methods that terrorists can employ. Cyber terrorism has become ‘the new language of war.'[19]

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