The Internet, or the World Wide Web, is a great means of obtaining anything that is in almost any part of the world. An easy way to think about this is just “millions of computers that can talk and share information” (Clark 1). The web broadcasts more information than any other medium in the world right now. There are several problems that have emerged with the startup of the Internet, “Almost as soon as the public began to use the Internet, people began to express concern about its use” (Clark 1). Several groups feel that the World Wide Web is dangerous because of its open accessibility, whereas other groups see that the Internet is something that is good and can be used to spread and increase knowledge worldwide. Due to its beneficial wealth the Internet should not be censored because censorship would restrict Americans’ first amendment rights; regulations have been tried and have failed in the past, and there are better methods of education and protection than censorship.
The rights put forth by the first amendment protect the Internet. The first amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (Wallace). In layman’s terms, this means that the government does not have the right to take away freedoms that involve speech or the press of the American people. The Internet’s lack of censorship encompasses Americans’ freedom because of the first amendment.
The World Wide Web started as an idea that focused around the government’s need to communicate if there was a real war. In 1964 the Cold War was at its peak, the Advanced Researched Projects Agency, or ARPA began researching and developing a way to get computers to “communicate with each other,” this is how it all started (The Internet’s History and Development). The government scientists who were, “developing networking technology in the 1960’s knew that what they were building would be far bigger than themselves; nobody, however, could have predicted the explosion in Internet access and interest in the past several years” (The Internet’s History and Development).
The government’s idea of an easier way to communicate during wartime became a reality slowly but steadily when “On January 2, 1969, designers began working on an experiment to determine whether computers at different universities could communicate with each other without a central system.” The first places to have access to the new “network” were some of the most prestigious colleges in the United States; Stanford and UCLA were among the first. Also during this year, the ARPA launched its new creation, the ARPAnet (sic), which was the main attraction at Washington D.C.’s International Conference on Computers and Communications (The Internet’s History and Development). In 1972, the Department of Defense began to oversee and finance the ARPA project and ARPA became DARPA.
Better technology was created and approved for use by the government in the mid-seventies, and in January, 1983, a major jump was made in how files were transferred. This was thought of by many to be the birth of the World Wide Web. From 1983 to 1995, several new characteristics were brought into the network to improve and sophisticate it. On April 30, 1995, the Internet was released to the world; the government gave total control to the user and took all hands off (The Internet’s History and Development). The Internet was now growing at a huge rate and would not be slowed down.
By 1996 both Microsoft and Netscape were at war over which Internet web browser would prove to be the better of the two; there were 12.8 million hosts, and half a million websites. In only a year the number of hosts was up to 19.5 million and there were one million web sites (History of the Internet). The idea of a network between computers took a strong hold in the minds of Americans and all over the world. The idea sprouted faster than almost any other technology known to man.
Also known as the “information superhighway” the Internet has almost limitless possibilities because Users can diagnose a ‘virtual patient,’ tour an art museum, listen to a new song, view a baseball play, or chat with a scientist in Antarctica. They can also meet people who want to have sex with children, learn how to make illegal drugs, read racist propaganda, or find out how to make a bomb from common household ingredients. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all easily-accessible. (Day 70)
Despite the danger and risks associated with and around the World Wide Web, it should still be a safe haven from censoring and a place where people can go to speak their minds.
America’s government has tried in the past to censor the Internet. An example of this is the Communications Decency Act, or CDA, which was a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (ACLU v. Reno II). Due to the CDA, “speech which is quite legal in a book or magazine should be banned from the Internet” (Wallace). This part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 criminalizes what the Government thinks is “indecent” speech on the Internet (Wallace). The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, stated in the Supreme Court brief before the ensuing lawsuit “The CDA is unconstitutional” (ACLU in the Courts).
According to the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, a group that supports the freedom of expression on the Internet, “the CDA severely restricts the first amendment rights of all Americans and threatens the very existence of the Internet itself. Although well intentioned, the CDA can never be effective at controlling content on a global medium” (Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition). If the CDA were to be implemented anything on the web would be forced to meet the accepted laws of any community. The communities with the strictest guidelines would regulate the more liberal population’s access (Wallace). The CDA does not allow Americans the freedom of speech that they are granted in the first amendment.
Several other regulations have been tried and have not succeeded on the World Wide Web. In February of 1996, the Communications Decency Act was made law. This new law made it illegal to transmit material that was thought “indecent” or “offensive” on the World Wide Web (ACLU v. Reno II). Another item that should be mentioned about this is that, “the CDA is not about child pornography, obscenity, or using the Internet to stalk children. These are already illegal under current law. Instead, the CDA prohibits posting “indecent” or “patently offensive” materials in a public forum on the Internet — including web pages, newsgroups, chat rooms, or online discussion lists” (Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition). This law breaks the first amendment in an extremely flagrant and intolerable way.
The Communications Decency Act also, “makes it a crime, punishable by up to two years in prison, for anyone to use online computer communications to transmit or ‘display in a manner available to minors’ any material that is ‘indecent’ or ‘patently offensive'” (ACLU in the Courts). The person who is transmitting this material would be tried in court, based solely on the government stating that the material is indecent. The person does not have the option to decide what they feel is offensive and this is a severing of the first amendment in the utmost deliberate and brazen way possible. The government would, in essence, be infringing on Americans’ rights to the fullest extent. The web user would have little say in what they viewed on the World Wide Web anymore.
Courts in the United States have found the Communications Decency Act as unconstitutional. An example of this happened “In 1997, [when] the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union that [the] CDA was an unconstitutional restriction on the Internet, a ‘unique and wholly new medium of worldwide human communication’ deserving of full First Amendment protection” (ACLU v. Reno II). The Supreme Court decided the outcome of this case in total agreement. All nine justices ruled that the CDA was unconstitutional and that the Internet deserved the full extent of the first amendment protections that all Americans get. Not a single one of the Supreme Court justices thought that the CDA was a good and constitutional act. They all agreed that the CDA was a major blow to first amendment rights of Americans.
The Child Online Protection Act, or COP A, was another bill that was intended to censor the World Wide Web, and “In October 1998, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Child Online Protection Act, the “sequel” to CDA. The COPA Commission, a group that tries to protect civil liberties, stated that the law might cost anyone accused of the offense “up to $50,000 per offense, prison terms of six months, or both”(COPA Commission). Prominent organizations, like the ACLU, also state “COPA establishes criminal penalties for any commercial distribution of material harmful to minors” (ACLU v. Reno II). The Child Online Protection Act is considered, “a broad censorship law that severely restricts any speech on the Web that is ‘harmful to minors,’ and imposes steep fines and prison terms for violators”(ACLU v. Reno II). Both Congress and the President approved COPA. COP A is almost as constricting a law on the first amendment as the Communications Decency Act (ACLU v. Reno II). This unjust law “was immediately subjected to a First Amendment challenge by the ACLU and a group of other plaintiffs” (COPA Commission). Like the CDA, COPA was stopped before it could begin, “the federal district court in Philadelphia issued an injunction preventing the government from enforcing COPA. That court held that COPA was invalid because there is no way for Web speakers to prevent minors from harmful material on the Web without also burdening adults from access to protected speech” (ACLU v. Reno II). The injunction occurred in February of 1999 and if it had not happened than the Internet might not exist today.
Another separate court found that any restriction whatsoever on the Internet is in opposition to the first amendment and is therefore not acceptable in America. On June 22, 2000, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found again that COPA was in violation of the first amendment, this time though, “Because of the peculiar geography-free nature of cyberspace, [COPA’s] community standards test would essentially require every web communication to abide by the most restrictive community’s standards” (ACLU v. Reno II). A community in an entirely different part of the country could be deciding what is appropriate in another part of the country.
An example of a lawsuit dealing with the Internet censorship argument occurred on July 18, 2002. The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, filed a lawsuit regarding prisoners of Arizona being online and publishing information regarding their own case records (ACLU Press Release: 07-18-02). The law, entitled Arizona House Bill 2376, “bars prisoners from corresponding with a ‘communication service provider’ or ‘remote computing service’ and disciplines prisoners if any person outside prison walls accesses a provider or service website at a prisoner’s request” (ACLU Press Release: 07-18-02). Although prisoners are locked up for committing crimes, they still deserve some of the rights listed in the first amendment. Even if they tried to get their information off of the Internet, they would be in violation of the law because they would have had to communicate with a service provider (ACLU Press Release: 07-18-02). Arizona House Bill 2376 is obviously a hypocritical and unjust law.
On July 25, 2002, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in order to force N2H2 Inc., a software company located in Seattle, to allow researchers to study N2H2 filtering programs and publish results of how the company’s software works in computers (ACLU Press Release: 07-25-02). According to the ACLU, “Several studies have documented serious flaws in N2H2’s blocking program and in similar programs” (Edelman). The program apparently has a contract that must be signed before use of the program can commence. The contract has an entire list of web sites that may not be accessed under any circumstances. The company in the lawsuit, N2H2 inc., must allow researchers to investigate how the software works and publish the findings in a way so the consumer and the public involved know what is happening with use of this software.
Rather than censoring the Internet, many groups support education about the Internet. There are numerous ways to protect or educate families about the dangers of the Internet and the uses and advantages of the Internet without censoring the World Wide Web. If “Childhood specialists universally criticize parents who allow their children to vegetate in front of the TV unsupervised; [then] the Net raises the same issues of parental responsibility” (Wallace). The Internet is just like the television; it is a medium to bring information into a home. Parents, not the United States government, should decide what is not only acceptable, but what is inoffensive, for their children to view online. Censorship is an issue that should be controlled at home, without the government’s supervision. Even if a censorship law were to be passed, “Adult supervision of Internet use is the most common way of controlling the information children can access on-line” (Day 68).
The government’s best laid plan for censorship of the Internet, the CDA, doesn’t even help the government protect the children that they want to protect (ACLU in the Courts). To clarify, the government’s programs to try and stop the distribution of so-called “indecent” materials will not work at all. Even if the government tries to limit the amount of material that gets through, they will never be able to cut it all off. The idea of a government controlled censorship program is an infringement on Americans’ rights and is completely unconstitutional. Besides, internet “users … can prevent their children from viewing objectionable material, whether sexually explicit or otherwise, by employing inexpensive and easy-to-use blocking and filtering technologies which can filter based on the individual tastes and values of parents, not the federal government” (Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition).
There are also software alternatives to control that can be strictly enforced by the government. There are several programs that have been created just to filter the World Wide Web and let only what is desired by the user get through. Parents should be responsible enough to watch their child’s Internet usage anyway, and filtering software like Net Nanny or Cyber sitter can be purchased. The government’s censoring is not a guarantee, and “Family education imposes little or no cost on publishers of otherwise lawful harmful to minors materials and creates little adverse impact on privacy, First Amendment values, or law enforcement” (COPA Commission).
There are also other resources that can be used to understand the Internet and its dangers. Online information, like educational websites, is one of these resources. They do “not directly prevent… access to harmful to minors materials, online information resources are essential to protecting children, as they can effectively provide access to technologies, information for families online, and hotlines to reach and report to authorities” (COPA Commission). Families should be able to find ways to educate themselves about the dangers and advantages of the Internet.
There are also “Active outreach [programs] to educate families about both the opportunities and dangers of the Internet, as well as the technologies and practices that can optimize a child’s experience online — with a goal of encouraging families’ involvement with their children’s online experience and wider adoption of common sense practices” (COPA Commission). Parents need to be able to watch their child’s online activity and be responsible for the sites that their children visit regardless of how little time the parents have to spend with their children. Parents cannot just let their child or children control their own online experience, getting into things that are not appropriate. This responsibility, although some might see it as the governments’, is actually that of the parents.
The World Wide Web is an extremely useful tool and does play a major part in society, regardless of the dangers. The Internet has a gigantic role in the growth of technology in America and in the world as well. If the United States government puts any constraints on the Internet, then the First Amendment will be broken. Due to the freedoms granted to the citizens of the United States by the First Amendment, the Internet should never be censored in America.