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Internet censorship: Will it become America's newest import?

By Christopher Kilmer
web posted August 5, 2002

As a longtime user of the Internet, I remember the mid-1990s, when "www" stood more for "Wild Wild West" than "World Wide Web." Federal and state governments had not yet scrambled to regulate the fledgling global computer network; they scarcely even knew what it was. Anyone could say pretty much anything, and I considered that to be a good thing. Today, I am still relatively free to express myself online, but the way things are going, the censorship I most fear comes not from Washington D.C., but from Paris, Beijing and Riyadh.

Back in the Bronze Age of the Internet (the fall of 1998), I created what is known as an "anti-website," a site devoted to expressing intense dislike or even hatred for a particular subject or person. The object of my effort was a pop music star named Fiona Apple. Instead of studying for my Medieval French Literature midterms, I burnt the midnight oil combing the web for news articles chronicling her latest public gaffes, writing parodies of her songs and corresponding with fellow "Fiona-haters" from Australia to Zaire.

I proudly considered my website the finest anti-Fiona Apple resource on the Internet (because it was the only one!) But it was also a prime example of the power the Internet has to provide a forum for even the most marginal opinions.

Looking back, I realize two things: I had way too much time on my hands; and the possibilities the Internet offered for self-expression for those whose voices would otherwise go unheard seemed limitless. My website was not truly hateful; it was more an edgy parody of a public figure, fully protected under my First Amendment right to free speech.

Fast forward to 2002. As the Internet continues to develop abroad, national governments have finally surrendered to their natural urge to regulate. For example, a treaty-making body known as the Council of Europe has moved to restrict online "hate speech" in an international Cybercrime Treaty ratified last November. Hate speech is a vague concept that I fear, if taken too literally by an unenlightened signatory, could include satire and parody such as my anti-website.

However, speech restrictions could take us far beyond stifling the freedom of expression of geeky college students. What could happen if CNN.com runs a story about the Palestinian Authority perceived as pro-Israel by Egyptian authorities? Might they consider it "hate speech" and take legal action against the authors of the article?

There is no shortage of examples of Internet censorship at the hands of foreign governments. In China and Saudi Arabia, for example, it is a crime to publish material online that promotes civil disobedience or has a "corrupting influence on society." Additionally, in recent months the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, has attempted to arrest journalists who published online articles critical of his regime, even though the computers that hosted them were located outside that nation.

Although they occurred outside the U.S., events such as I described are occurring with alarming regularity and increasing frequency. If allowed to continue unchecked, they could have a subtle but corrosive effect on our freedom of speech. If foreign governments continue to prosecute individuals outside their sovereign territory for merely expressing themselves, the world will become a much smaller place for Americans, who could be subject to arrest and even extradition if they venture outside U.S. borders.

The Internet's entire reason for being is to facilitate communication. Thus, any regulation, no matter what the intent, will affect Internet users' freedom to express themselves. Therefore, I believe it is time for the U.S. to take up the cause of freedom of expression on a global basis.

We should convoke an International Convention on Online Free Expression, which would take its inspiration from the First Amendment of the Constitution and require signatory nations to honor the rights of citizens to express controversial or unpopular opinions on the Internet. Admittedly, the list of nations willing to participate might be depressingly small, but such an idea could keep critical allies, such as Canada and Japan, from signing the Cybercrime Treaty and adopting its ominous "hate speech" restrictions. Above all, such a treaty would reiterate the role of the U.S. as the leader of the free world, and as the standard bearer of free societies that respect diversity of opinion and freedom of expression - indeed, the bedrock of democracy.

Christopher Kilmer is a summer research associate at the Free Congress Foundation.

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