SOURCE: THE NATION, 7/3/95, “Keeping On-Line Speech Free: Street Corners in Cyberspace;”* Author: Andrew L. Shapiro
SYNOPSIS: You may not have noticed, but the Internet, one of the hottest news stories of 1995, was essentially sold last year. The federal government has been gradually transferring the backbone of the U.S. portion of the global computer network to companies such as IBM and MCI as part of a larger plan to privatize cyberspace. But the crucial step was taken on April 30, when the National Science Foundation shut down its part of the Internet, which began in the 1970s as a Defense Department communications tool. And that left the corporate giants in charge.
Remarkably, this buyout of cyberspace has garnered almost no protest or media attention, in contrast to every other development in cyberspace such as the Communications Decency Act, and cyberporn. What hasn’t been discussed is the public’s right to free speech in cyberspace. What is obvious is that speech in cyberspace will not be free if we allow big business to control every square inch of the Net.
Given the First Amendment and the history of our past victories in fighting for freedom of expression, it should be clear how important public forums in cyberspace could be—as a way of keeping on-line debate robust and as a direct remedy for the dwindling number of free speech spaces in our physical environment.
There already are warning signs about efforts to limit on-line debate. In 1990, the Prodigy on-line service started something of a revolt among some of its members when it decided to raise rates for those sending large volumes of e-mail. When some subscribers protested, Prodigy not only read and censored their messages, but it summarily dismissed the dissenting members from the service.
There are at least three fundamental ways that speech in cyber-space already is less free than speech in a traditional public forum:
First, cyberspeech is expensive, both in terms of initial outlay for hardware and recurring on-line charges. For millions of Americans, this is no small obstacle, especially when one considers the additional cost of minimal computer literacy.
Second, speech on the Net is subject to the whim of private censors who are not accountable to the First Amendment. Commercial on-line services, such as America Online and Compuserve, like Prodigy, have their own codes of decency and monitors to enforce them.
Third, speech in cyberspace can be shut out by unwilling listeners too easily. With high-tech filters, Net users can exclude all material from a specific person or about a certain topic, enabling them to steer clear of “objectionable” views, particularly marginal political views, very easily.
If cyberspace is deprived of true public forums, we’ll get a lot of what we’re already used to: endless home shopping, mindless entertainment and dissent-free talk. If people can avoid the unpalatable issues that might arise in these forums, going on-line will become just another way for elites to escape the very nonvirtual realities of injustice in our world. As the “wired” life grows exponentially in the coming years, we’ll all be better off if we can find that classic free speech street corner in cyberspace.
As the supreme Court said in Turner Broadcasting v. FCC (1994), “Assuring that the public has access to a multiplicity of information sources is a governmental purpose of the highest order, for it promotes values central to the First Amendment.”
SSU Censored Researcher: Fritz Rollins
COMMENTS: The main subject, according to investigative author Andrew L. Shapiro, is “how the rapid corporatization of cyberspace, with the assistance and acquiescence of government, is squeezing out public spaces on-line that are truly dedicated to freedom of expression.” Shapiro points out that his piece urges, “in contradiction to the libertarian bent of most writing in defense of free speech on the Internet,l that government take an active role in safeguarding the virtual public forum.
“This is a topic which has not received sufficient, if any, exposure in the mass media. While there has been endless coverage of cyberporn and the Exon Bill’s attempt to thwart obscenity on the Internet, and of myriad other cyberspace-related issues, I’ve seen little out there on this specific subject. Of course, there have been relevant straight news pieces on huge new on-line services (e.g., the Microsoft Network) and on mergers (e.g., Murdoch’s News Corp. buying the independent Delphi on-line service.
“People are seeking critical analysis of the emerging information technologies, but most of what they’re getting is off-the-cuff and not very thoughtful or just straight out of the P.R. releases of the big hardware, software, and Internet gateway companies. I don’t think many people realize what an opportunity may be passing them by—to have a potentially inexpensive, democratizing, grass-roots form of communication and information-gathering at their fingertips. When it comes to the Internet, most folks assume that government is the enemy of free speech because of irresponsible legislation like the Exon Bill. What they don’t realize is that corporate-owned cyberspace will probably be a lot more stifling, since private on-line services who censor Net users are totally unaccountable under the First Amendment, which only protects citizens from government regulation of speech.”
Shapiro said it was easy to point out whose interests are being served by the limited coverage given the corporatization of cyberspace: “The private on-line services that are gobbling up the Net, like America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, etc. It’s also not surprising that most of these services are now owned by, or in partnerships with, bigger media conglomerates that own most of the mass media that has failed to cover the privatization of cyberspace.”
As for recent developments, Shapiro warns, “the conglomeration of on-line services continues, advertising is starting to dominate the World Wide Web, Web site addresses are now being auctioned instead of given away, and there is generally less room for the free-wheeling, open chat that was more typical of the earlier cyberspace incarnations like Usenet.”