Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Lost in Cyberspace

First Amendment under international attack

This article was originally published on May 12, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The idea of free speech has never exactly been popular – the founding fathers included free speech in the Bill of Rights for a reason, namely that when human beings have power they tend to use it to shut up those who dare to disagree with them. Witness last year's Communications Decency Act, finally struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional because of its limits on speech.

Even in democracies, expression has almost never been as free as it is in this country. In fact, the concept of unbridled speech is nearly unique to the United States, both throughout history and in our time. Even in ancient Greece, cradle of democracy, Socrates was sentenced to death for refusing to stop teaching his students to question authority. And today, other Western democracies, such as Canada and Australia, recognize far less freedom for the press and individuals than is true in the United States.

The fact that the Internet was developed in the United States is a happy coincidence of history, leading to the present situation in which the Internet contains a far greater range of opinion than any other single enterprise.

Which, of course, has much of the rest of the world squirming.

Most Americans are probably unaware that there is a squabble going on over whether the Internet should be taken over by an international governing body (a good analysis can be found in the latest issue of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility newsletter at There have been a few articles in the national media about this fight over the growing world of online commerce, but it's not the kind of story to hold most people's attention.

But behind that mostly invisible rift between the United States and the rest of the world lies yet another, and even more insidious fight: Whether – or rather how – to control speech on the Internet.

During meetings in November by the United Nations' Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), representatives from various nations called for a crackdown against "hate speech" on the Internet. (Go to, then click on "search" on the bottom menu. At the search page, type in "internet hate speech" under Search All Documents, and click on the button to "Match all of these words"; from there, you want the "THIRD COMMITTEE APPROVES DRAFT RESOLUTIONS ON INTERNATIONAL DRUG CONTROL, ADVANCEMENT OF WOMEN" document.)

At the November hearings, there were complaints about Internet "hate speech" from Iran (the same nation that still demands the murder of best-selling author Salman Rushdie for heresy), Indonesia (where mobs are chasing ethnic Chinese through the streets this week) and Nigeria (whose government pretty much kills indiscriminately). And in recent news reports, several U.N. representatives have bemoaned the fact that the First Amendment applies to the Internet – so unfair, they say, since other nations now also use the Net.

All of which makes the ongoing efforts by the U.N. and other international bodies to wrest control of the Internet away from the United States pretty scary. After all, who gets to decide what constitutes hate speech?

Some Latino activists believe that anyone who advocates stronger enforcement of laws against illegal immigration (or even simply uses a phrase like "illegal immigration") is a racist, their politics nothing more than hate speech. There are other groups who argue that anyone who speaks out against abortion is inherently committing hate speech against women. And still others who believe that anyone who supports gay rights is committing hate speech against Christians.

So – which of those positions gets banned?

But progress in defending free speech is being made.

For instance, the Anti-Defamation League – an international human rights group – had, until very recently, been among the most vocal in calling for the banning of "hate speech" on the Internet. A visit to the ADL Web site, though, confirms that the group has followed through on its recent promise to stop calling for a ban of "hate groups" on the Web. The ADL is now promoting the concept of tolerance sites on the Web to give reasonable alternatives to sites that advocate violence.

And at a follow-up to the November U.N. meeting, a committee report recommended "more speech" as the best antidote to hate speech – not censorship as called for earlier.

Which, as the Internet continues to grow across the globe, offers hope for international protection of free speech.

Because, as Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, it is only unpopular speech that needs protection – inoffensive speech will never require the First Amendment or a U.N. equivalent.