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The hegemony of free speech

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 28, 2005
(Issue 2343, Building the Ultimate Home Entertainment Center)

As this is written on the last day of September, the United States is finding itself the object of concerted and near-unanimous condemnation for its refusal to hand supervision of the Internet over to the United Nations or other international body.

On the surface, this demand seems a fair one. Why should we keep control of something that has obviously grown into a global phenomenon? Why shouldn't a global network have global supervision? Isn't this just another example of the current administration's cowboy mentality?

But if you take a step back and think through the repercussions of what the Internet would be like under the U.N., you're likely to agree that for the time being, the semi-anarchic state of affairs nominally supervised by the Department of Commerce is probably the best for everyone.

A little history

The U.S. government technically retains ownership of the Internet because the Internet was developed under a Department of Defense contract in the late1960s. The ARPANET was a project to see if it was feasible to connect the mainframe and mini computers of the day together into a workable network - across different hardware platforms and operating systems, across thousands of miles separating them.

Indeed it was possible, with a lot of hard work and visionary thinking, and within two decades the renamed Internet was ready to unleash on the world.

Today, the U.S. government sets strategic policy for the Internet at the highest levels – but contracts out the day to day maintenance of the 'Net to private firms and nonprofit groups. The heart of the feds' involvement in the 'Net are the 13 main database servers that contain the master records of all the domains in the world - the .com and .edu and .gov addresses.

Cultural values

More to the point, though, is that since the Internet is a U.S. creation and, so far at least, U.S. supervised network, it is covered by and large by U.S. jurisprudence.

For that, even the staunchest opponents of President Bush should give thanks – for no country on Earth has as strong of legal protection for free speech and dissent as the United States.

Again and again over the past decade, we've seen foreign courts try to curtail speech on the Internet – only to have U.S. courts uphold the First Amendment.

Most notoriously, the French tried to have any mention of Nazism or sale of Nazi artifacts banned from the Internet – winning judgments in French courts against Yahoo and eBay.

U.S. courts have prevented those decisions from being carried out.

Now, you might think censoring Nazis is a good thing. But what about when it's your views on trial? Will you still be so sanguine about international control of the Internet?

Scary examples

For instance, in many Muslim nations it's illegal – often punishable by death – to "slander" Islam. But who gets to decide what defines that slander? Salman Rushdie wrote a novel for Western audiences, yet remains in hiding due to multiple death sentences imposed on him in abstentia by various Islamic powers.

It's now illegal in China to use the Internet or cell phones to organize unauthorized gatherings. Hard to see gaining much of a foothold there – or a Chinese version of Howard Dean coming to the public's attention.

Even countries you might think of as interchangeable with the United States in terms of civil rights often have far less freedom of expression than what we're used to or what's currently allowed on the Internet.

Popular talk show host Dr. Laura Schlesinger found her short-lived TV show banned from Canada because of her belief that homosexuality is unnatural. And with gay marriage now legal in most of Canada, gay rights activists in Canada have been filing complaints against Catholic bishops in front of various "human rights commissions" up there to prohibit said bishops from speaking out against gay marriage – all in the name of freedom, don't you know.

Free speech safety valve

And yet, on the Internet, Canadians can still go to Dr. Laura's Web site and listen to her banned-in-Canada radio show via streaming audio. In might be illegal to do so, but at least they have the option of hearing what is officially banned.

More importantly, Chinese and Iranian and Cuban and Syrian citizens can use the Internet to find out political information their governments prohibit them from reading or hearing from their local newspapers and broadcast outlets.

With activists in this country constantly railing against some sort of government or corporate conspiracy to deny us information about policy failures in Iraq or how the current president "stole" the election, it can be easy to forget what real censorship looks and feels like.

Regardless of how much our domestic activists from either side of the spectrum may complain that the other side is trying to censor them, the truth is that because of the First Amendment, the only speech banned in this country is child pornography. Period. Want to put up a Web site arguing that George Bush is not only not the president of the United States, but is a war criminal who should be behind bars? Have at it. You may get hate mail from Bush supporters, but what you won't get is the police at your door placing you under arrest.

The truth is our judiciary – and the American people – simply won't stand for the sort of real censorship all too common in the rest of the world.

In fact, if there's one thing that liberals and conservatives in the U.S. ought to be able to agree on, it's that no matter who runs the Internet, we ought to all be free to speak our minds without fear of punishment.

And until the U.N. is ready to guarantee that our standard of free speech is the one that will prevail, we should all urge the U.S. government to keep a firm hand on the 'Net's tiller.