Seven words you can’t say on the Internet

The U.S. government can’t seem to decide whether the Internet should be more or less free.

Sam Blake

Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech. This speech, to my knowledge, was not censored by the U.S. government in any way. The speech in question was on the topic of what Clinton termed âÄúInternet freedom.âÄù Clinton enumerated many of the valuable elements information networks in general and the Internet in particular have brought to modern society. In her words: âÄúThere are many âĦ networks in the world. Some aid in the movement of people or resources, and some facilitate exchanges between individuals with the same work or interests. But the Internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And thatâÄôs why we believe itâÄôs critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, e-mails, social networks and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas and created new targets for censorship.âÄù This speech comes in the aftermath of a number of cases in which other countries have been restricting Internet freedoms. China, for example, has censored the Internet profusely; Google recently refused to continue to comply with the censorship laws. In Australia, the government is trying to implement blanket censorship on Internet content it deems inappropriate. And in Iran, where social activists used the Internet to try to garner international support during last yearâÄôs elections, the countryâÄôs leadership is accusing the United States of trying to use the Internet to undermine their governmentâÄôs authority. ClintonâÄôs stated position on Internet freedom is an appropriate one. We should all be in favor of letting the Internet flourish as a medium for free and open communication. We should expect American corporations to uphold the principles of free communication that their customers should rightfully demand. And, when necessary, we should expect our government to uphold these freedoms. The problem is not the State DepartmentâÄôs stance on Internet freedom. It is an admirable one that Americans should support. However, there is a problem when we advocate the spread of âÄúInternet freedomâÄù in other countries while neglecting it in our own. Despite ClintonâÄôs public statement that the United States supports Internet freedom, the entities in government that actually implement these policies seem to have an entirely different understanding. It has long been accepted that the government regulates limited public resources. When it became clear that there were a limited number of possible radio and television channels, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created to regulate them. When it became clear that large trusts were monopolizing a limited amount of physical resources, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was created to regulate them. The FCC has a long and storied history of taking a rather extensive view of its own authority. Originally intended to equitably distribute broadcast ranges in television and radio, the FCC has taken it upon itself, with the governmentâÄôs blessing, to also regulate and censor broadcast content. George CarlinâÄôs famous âÄúSeven Words You Can Never Say on TelevisionâÄù was not just a comedy routine but a reminder to us all that government censorship is very real, despite our First Amendment rights. The FCC is currently in a federal appeals court trying to assert its right to regulate broadband Internet infrastructure. Is it so much of a stretch to imagine that, if it wins that right, it will use it in the same way it has regulated radio and television? And, since the rising popularity of the Internet has dramatically increased the amount of peopleâÄôs time and money that flow through it, the FTC has also decided to start getting in on the action. In light of recent controversies surrounding social networking sitesâÄô use of usersâÄô personal information for advertising purposes, the FTC has, according to The New York Times, indicated that the Internet may have âÄúevolved past privacy policies.âÄù Specifically, the FTC wants to strictly regulate the ways in which personal information is used by Web services. Additionally, it has suggested that it wants to eliminate (or at least regulate) privacy agreements, as in the agreements that nobody ever reads when they register their personal information with a Web service. In other words, the FTC doesnâÄôt think youâÄôre sufficiently responsible to enter into a contract of your own volition and thus wants to do it for you. It is important to remember in all of this that Internet freedom is not the enemy here. Clinton was right to say we âÄústand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.âÄù The evolution of the Internet has provided an unspeakable amount of informative and communicative power to individuals, and this is clearly a good thing. The U.S. government is also not the enemy; those in the FCC and FTC making these decisions are not trying to take freedoms from us; theyâÄôre just trying to do what they think is best for the taxpayers who support them, and thatâÄôs to be respected. But all the same, we need to decide what it is that we actually want. Do we want the Internet to be regulated, sheltered and safe? Or do we want it to be free? Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected]