Should Governments Censor Material on the World Wide Web?

Introduction

The Internet is a powerful new medium that integrates older media like print and broadcast media and also ensures transmission of each with its individual characteristics. It is more versatile than other traditional media because of the speed and domain of coverage and communication on the internet is global in nature with no physical or jurisdictional barriers (Kizza, 1998). The internet is full of resources such as job portals, business websites, shopping and dating sites and sites for networking, fun and games, learning and researching (Foerstel, 1998). There is a huge store of information on the internet that is steadily growing in volume.

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Some people have begun to voice concerns that the internet has reached a point where free speech is creating certain dangers to society and particularly to children. To protect children from violence, sexually explicit materials and abuse, and to prevent issues such as defamation, hate speech and distribution of free how-to manuals for crimes, these people demand that the World Wide Web be subject to censorship like most other mass media.

On the other hand, there are the so called champions of democracy who believe that free speech is a basic right that overrides all other human concerns and hold that there should be no censorship whatsoever on the World Wide Web. Thesis: Censorship of the World Wide Web is not advisable as it infringes on the basic rights of freedom of speech and freedom of press and there is the possibility of misuse in the hands of authoritarian governments.

Main body

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill has always emphasized on the freedom of speech and so have the Founding Fathers of the United States. The first amendment in the U.S. Constitution protects public speaking and print media and can be easily extended to electronic media. Freedom of speech is one of the most important aspects of the bill of rights and when more and more of interactions take place on-line, it is only normal that people should be guaranteed the same rights in cyberspace that they enjoy in normal space.

Susan Travis Bissonette argues that the US government or any other agency for that matter should not deter freedom of speech and access to information in libraries (Wyngaard 87). She points to the fact that some governments and religious groups try to prevent Web sites from reaching internet users and also how corporations sell and use filters for their own benefit. Censorship can only strengthen the hands of such dictatorial elements.

Some people might argue that although democratic nations value freedom of speech, all put some restrictions on the right of speech especially around hard core and child pornography and more recently around hate speech as well. Truly offensive material cannot be any different because it is published on the web and hence there should be censorship of the World Wide Web as well. However, censorship of the internet is a difficult proposition as one would be hard pressed to guarantee that any source of material is completely safe for minors. Moreover as the internet is open to all countries what is culturally considered safe in one country may be considered unsafe in another country (Wilson, 1995). Some sexually related material may be valuable and useful to a great many people though they may not have as much value to everyone (Wilson, 1995).

Many also argue that the images and discussion available on sexually related newsgroups is degrading to women. However, that need not be the case and is not necessarily the case currently. Censorship of sexually explicit material is even more harmful to women, because it denies their sexuality and prevents them from discussing it. If anything, open discussion, not censorship, is the only thing that will cause society to grow beyond its current difficulties in sexual politics. This argument is strengthened by the words of Rachel Hickerson, Executive Director of Feminists for Free Expression who says: “The suppression of words and images — especially sexual ones — has traditionally been used to “protect” women from information about sexuality and reproductive choices and to silence women’s voices” (Zuzga, 2008).

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Censorship is generally tailored to the power of the medium. Accordingly a higher level of censorship is attached to television, films and video than to newspapers and books. Supporters of censorship may argue that the internet that increasingly uses video and sound should be regulated accordingly (IDEA, 2004). However, the internet can be considered on equal platform with the print media. Print media are comparatively unregulated because they are the primary means of distributing information in society. In the near future the Internet may become this prime disseminator. Thus the Internet must be allowed the same protections now enjoyed by the print media.

Moreover, Government censorship can also be misused. According to Reporters without Borders, forty-five governments restrict their citizens’ access to the Internet, by forcing them to use only a state operated ISP, which may filter out offensive messages, content or sites (Weimann, 2006). One such government China, uses censorship to assure that no one speaks against its regime. Under Hu, China has become a world leader in jailing political dissidents who use the Internet to express their views.

In Cuba, the Castro government controls all access to the Internet (Thierer and Crews Jr.). There is also the case of selective censorship. The Saudi government that successfully blocks websites airing enlightened attitudes toward women, Islam, pluralism, freedom and democracy leaves unimpeded inflammatory websites that recruit for violent Jihad (Schwartz, 2003). Government censorship of the internet can thus be detrimental to the basic rights of human beings.

Conclusion

The internet in general and the world wide web in particular are often criticized for providing an information infrastructure that can also be misused for the distribution of content that is illegal or offensive, such as propagandistic material from the radical left or right-wing, child-pornographic images and video sequences, instructions to build bombs or make drugs, and information for terrorists. Most people agree that the Internet should not provide support for the distribution of such content. However, government censorship is not a practical idea as it infringes on the basic rights of freedom of speech and freedom of press and it can also be abused in the hands of dictatorial governments.

Bibliography

Weimann, Gabriel (2006). Terror on the Internet: the new arena, the new challenges. US Institute of Peace Press.

Wyngaard, Susan (2004). Smothering Free Speech: Filtering the World Wide Web. Haworth Press.

IDEA (International Debate Education Association) (2004). The Debatabase Book: A Must Have Guide for Successful Debate. IDEA Publishers.

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Foerstel, N. Herbert (1998). Banned in the Media: A Reference Guide to Censorship in the Press, Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, and the Internet. Greenwood Press. Westport, CT.

Wilson, R. Paul (1995). Dealing with Pornography: The Case against Censorship. University of New South Wales Press. Sydney, N.S.W. Page Number: 47.

Thierer, Adam and Crews Jr., Wayne Clyde (2003). Who Rules the Net? Internet Governance and Jurisdiction. Cato Institute. Washington, DC.

Kizza, Migga Joseph (1998). Civilizing the Internet: Global Concerns and Efforts Toward Regulation. McFarland Publishers.

Zuzga, Brian (2008). An Analysis of Arguments Against Censorship of Sexually Related Newsgroups on Usenet. Web.

Schwartz, Stephen (2003). The Islamic Terrorism Club. The Weekly Standard. Volume 009, Issue 09. Web.

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