Free Speech and the Future of the Web

Here are two articles that are sort of connected, but not exactly.

1. Tim Wu, writing for Chronicle, says that American’s First Amendment rights to free speech are under assault due to corporate consolidation and private entities.

We are living in an age where a decreasing number of firms serve as a kind of Master Switch over speech on the Internet—think Google, Facebook, the cable industry, and the major telephone carriers.

These firms are already under strong pressure to censor from powerful governments, religious groups, political parties, and essentially any outfit with a reason to want information suppressed. The Turkish government, for example, demands that Google take down mockery of the nation’s founder, not just in Turkey, but everywhere. The Church of Scientology has never stopped demanding of anyone who will listen to remove criticism of its practices from the Internet, usually claiming copyright infringement.

On a daily basis, as we speak, Internet companies are making speech-related decisions more important than those made by any government. YouTube, for instance, has to constantly decide what to censor. Generally, it blocks copyright infringements on request and pornography without request, and it listens to some but not all of the demands of governments. Facebook, for its part, has been tested less, but it has been willing to delete user-generated content at the request of governments, like Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This is what speech management looks like in 2010.

2. Tim Berners-Lee, writing in Scientific American, picks up a similar thread:

The Web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.

If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.

Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium.

And yet, yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 19-0 to approve the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, or COICA, and send it to the full Senate for a vote.  Luckily, Ron Wydon (D-OR) has vowed to block the bill, which would shut down supposed copyright infringing websites, or block them, etc.  It’s a dangerous precedence.

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