Internet Speech: Is It Free or Not?
London School of Business and Finance
Abstract: As the Internet is continuously growing, there has been a serious issue: can we express ourselves freely in the cyberspace or not, because it is strictly monitored? The freedom of expression is a fundamental human right which has been violated even in the Internet by the authorities. This has happened in three cases: that of Wikileaks, Google policy in China and Press-gr.blogspot.com in Greece. According to the cases mentioned above, officials, including in the democratic societies, have tried to stifle the online speech in different ways, such as criminal charges. But, even technology companies comply with the censorship rules, as long as it meets their interests. Consequently, the freedom of expression in the Internet needs to be protected more, because it is highly restricted. As the number of web users will be increased in the next years, this issue will remain interesting.
Keywords: free speech, Internet, Wikileaks, Google, China, Press-gr.blogspot.com, human rights.
There is no doubt the freedom of expression is one of the most important rights, as it is a main characteristic of human’s personality. This means that the personality is offended, when this right is restricted. The freedom of expression is significant for another reason. It is linked to the democratic regime, where anyone can express their thoughts freely. Open exchange of opinions is necessary for any democratic procedure and good governance. Even international conventions have recognized its significance, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. (article10: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.”).
Moreover, this right is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration was written in 1948 and was an aftermath of the II World War, after the defeat of Nazi. This right was totally violated in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. In those regimes the authorities controlled the expression and the media were used for propaganda. In particular, it is referred that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (article 19). The freedom of expression is significant not only for individuals but for the societies. For this reason, it is protected especially from international conventions.
Internet has been used by more and more people all over the world. The Internet is is a worldwide collection of computer networks, which cooperate with one another to exchange data using a common software standard. Telephone wires and satellite links are necessary, in order that the users can share information. Historically, the World Wide Web was born in the United States of America. It began as a US Department Defence project called APRAnet, which intended to create a nationwide computer network being able to function under extreme circumstances, such as nuclear war or natural disaster. Meanwhile, its use was mainly for educational and research methods. In 1992 its nature changed rapidly, as the American government stopped to manage the cyberspace and the Internet was offered to the public for the first time. Then a new period started for the cyberspace.
It has become a very useful tool for the majority of the people who have conducted business, education, social and financial activities, as it is connected with the technology, global market economy and the freedom of movement. Its main features are the speed, the frequency, the anonymity and the integration of innumerable exchanges. By using it people all over the world are able to communicate each other, transmit data and exchange information freely. There is an interesting question if the internet access is a human right, as millions of people use it daily. Communication, involving technology, is a main principle. Esler argues ”the right to impart and receive information freely has long been a cornerstone of human rights, law, and of democratic theory”. Therefore, the Internet access may be a human right. Under these circumstances the legal restriction of this human right should be discussed. Even if it is generally said the internet access is a private-law issue, according to a 2010 BBC survey four in five people in the world believe that internet access is a fundamental human right. Internet is said to be so special for another reason. Anyone is able to publish information, to which millions of people can access. Breaking News, encyclopedias, books and others are available through the Internet. Notably, nowadays more and more people, regardless of age, are informed through the cyberspace, because they can find anything there. This technological information revolution has changed human’s life as much as the previous revolutions. In other words, it is a new kind of mass media which has been very popular. However, some serious issues have been raised. One of these is the restriction on the free online speech. Despite its significance, governments worldwide have attempted to restrict it for alleged reasons. But is this method correct or is it a type of censorship? Consequently, someone would wonder whether there is actually freedom of expression in the cyberspace or not.
My aim is to “critically evaluate if there is freedom of expression in the Internet’’.
Under these circumstances it is being examined if the right to free speech is violated in the cyberspace. The data collected by the author come from literature and other sources, especially academic texts, journals, newspaper articles and electronic resources. In particular, the data obtained from the cyberspace may not have been monitored. All of these are being used; in order the author tries to develop a reliable academic base. Finally, it is accepted there is some bias in this study. The reason is the limitation of time, resources and experience. In other words, a handful of resources about specific place and time were used for the purpose of this study. However, critical reflection is apparent throughout the study. The cases are analyzed and interpreted, in order the findings to be made.
Brief case history
Initially, the violation of the online free speech is not uncommon. This means the access to the Internet is limited in order that people are not able to access certain information. To a certain extent, this happens in all countries, for instance most countries restrict access to sites with offensive material such as child pornography, terrorism, racial hatred and crime. All of them are international issues which can be solved through global cooperation. But, this phenomenon in some countries is much more complicated.As far as the reasons of this restriction, they can fall into three categories. The most controversial category is that of political reasons. Through the censorship access to the sites of minority groups is limited, as they are thought to be a threat to the authorities. The second category is for protecting social norms, for example children. The third reason for internet censorship is the national security. In this case, the purpose is to block the sites of terrorist groups and extremists. The Internet can be censored by two ways: through technical means and non technical, namely legislation. Α very characteristic example is the United States. After the terrorist attacks on 11th September censoring websites was widely acceptable. At that point, three really interesting cases will be studied.
The Wikileaks case is said to be one of the most controversial cases in ages. The website launched in January 2007 was founded by Julian Assange, an Australian former computer hacker. It was created, in order to expose official and corporate secrets through anonymous whistle-blowers. It operated on a low budget from servers in Sweden where legislation protects anonymity. Except for Julian Assange, other top members were Jacob Applebaum-Tor developer and activist- Dutch activist Ron Gongrijp and the media figure and Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir. They all contributed to the website. In December 2007 it posted a manual about the American military operations in Guantanamo. In 2008 a Cayman Islands-based bank, Julius Baer, said that an ex-employee handed over stolen documents to Wikileaks, despite a confidentiality agreement as well as banking laws. According to Wikileaks, these documents were important, on ground that they unveiled bank’s secret about asset hiding money laundering and tax evasion. For this reason, a federal judge in San Francisco issued an order to indispose the site’s domain name, which was capsized after two weeks. This decision is thought to be controversial. In particular, David Ardia, the director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School, characterized it unconstitutional, as ” there is no justification under the First Amendment for shutting down an entire website”.
In April 2010 Wikileaks posted a package of documents and videos known as “Collateral Murder”. One video depicted the killing of two Reuter’s journalists and other individuals in Iraq by Apache helicopter gunship in July 2007. Meanwhile the website posted about 76,000 classified military reports from the war in Afghanistan against Taliban figures from 2004 to 2010, which were related to unknown incidents of Afghan civilian killings by NATO forces. In December 2010 Mr. Assange was arrested in London in accordance with a European arrest warrant due to alleged rape sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. Having denied the charges, Julian Assange has tried to avoid the extradition from the UK to Sweden, according to the UK’s Supreme Court decision. Not only Julian Assange but also the other Wikileaks contributors were charged. Particularly, a US judge ruled Twitter must have released the details of Birgitta Jonsdottir, Jacob Appelbaum and Rops, Gonggrijp. Jonsdottir’s account was under scrutiny from the Justice Department due to her role in the “Collateral Murder” video release. In her opinion, “this is a huge blow for everybody that uses social media. We must have the same civil rights online as we have offline. Imagine if the US authorities wanted to do a house search at my home, go through my private papers”.
However, there were a lot of website’s supporters. Needless to mention that Amnesty International condemned the prosecution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The organization described it as an attempt to “stifle” free speech in the name of national security. It emphasized that governments cannot avoid their obligations to respect and protect the free speech, directly or indirectly. In particular, Amnesty’s Asia Pacific director Sam Zarifi said “National security should not be used to stifle freedom of speech except in very restricted circumstances where there is clear evidence that there is a genuine threat to national security.” Furthermore, a lot of individuals supported Wikileaks, such as Arianna Huffington. Interestingly, she commended the website for publishing notably unknown incidents from the war in Afghanistan. Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate magazine, said «information conduits like Juliane Assange help shock us out of our complacency”. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger supported the publication of leaked information. Besides, the Guardian newspaper put the contributors to Wikileaks on its list of twenty “champions of the open internet”.
As for the Wikileaks’ case, there is a conflict among free online speech, the people’s right to know and have transparency, national security and the government’s right to keep secrets. Although it is widely thought that the governments have the right to keep secrets, it could be said the free speech is more important. This means anyone can inform and be informed without restriction about any issue, let alone wrongdoings of authorities. What is more, the citizens in the democratic societies should know everything, in order to make the correct decisions in the elections. Even though the United States are widely thought to be a beacon of democracy, the Wikileaks case has proven a totally different option. The real reason for Julian Assange’s prosecution was his contribution to Wikileaks. Needless to mention that he is the first person to be prosecuted for a leak in the press in the American history. He has been charged with espionage. Furthermore, by trying to find out sufficient evidence, Justice asked for Twitter to release information about other contributors. It is remarkable that Wikileaks managed to globalize the leak of documents. Wikileaks has been characterized as the first multi homed journalistic organization all over the world.
Internet in China-Google’s policy
Another interesting case is the Google’s policy in China. Firstly, the situation in the Chinese cyberspace is being studied. Two great walls in China are popular. One is the physical Great Wall built to protect the country from the invaders. The second is the virtual Chinese Firewall, which was created and controlled by the Chinese authorities. Although the officials say the regime is a form of democracy, it is actually totalitarian. There is only one Party, which makes all decisions. No civil society watchdog exists and corruption is rampant. It is a successful economic world power lacking of social and political freedoms for its population. For instance, churches, NGOs and civil groups must have official permission. Arbitrary searches and arrests, tortures or imprisonments are not uncommon. As for the news industry, it is regulated and censored. The Propaganda Department controls whatever is said and written. As for the Internet, the government examines the online information and delete what is considered objectionable by using the Great Firewall. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology uses filtering software in which sensitive data are detected. In case that a user looks for banned words such as Tiananmen Incident, software detects them and the connection is being broken. Thousands of websites, including many porn-related, are blocked and destinations such as YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and Blogger are heavily restricted. Web users in Internet cafes, where the majority of Chinese go online, are obligated to supply personal details in order to sign on.
Under these circumstances a lot of media outlets and web surfers have been confused. For instance, the New York Times’ website was inexplicably blocked, while the BBC’s English language content was just as surprisingly blocked. News should be ”healthy” and ”in the public interest” and ”in accordance with Chinese culture or tradition”. Needless to say that nothing must challenge the Communist party. Interestingly, the authorities declared that ” internet administration is not a special case in China as all other countries regulate networks according to their own laws.” As for Google Search, it is the most popular internet search engine across the world, as it has over 1 million servers and one billion search requests a day. The Chinese version, Google.cn, was launched in January 2006 and received the license from the authorities in September 2007. Google should have complied with the filtering rules applied to all foreign internet companies operating in the country and Google.com should have remained blocked. Moreover, it promised not to maintain any services which involve personal or confidential data such as Gmail or Blogger. According to Eric Schmidt’s, the chief executive, statement, the company would become the leader of the Chinese internet market despite the challenges, such as censorship issues and fierce competition from the largest home-grown rival called Baidu.com.What is more, Google’s Vice President and “Chief Internet Evangelist”, Vint Cerf, supported the company’s decision to expand its activities in China, although it should have complied with the Chinese government’s demands to censor information. In an interview, he said there were thoughts over years whether it should go to China or not. Besides, only 1% or less of information was censored. In other words, Google decided to follow the law.
However, the criticism was tough. Google and other companies, such as Yahoo, Microsoft, Cisco Systems were accused by lawmakers at a Congressional hearing on the ethics of doing business in China. On the other hand, the four firms defended their decision to invest in this country, although they conceded that restricted online access was not ideal. Especially Google came under attack, because it was made to block politically sensitive terms in agreement with conditions set by the Chinese authorities. In February 2008 a Chinese human rights activist by the name of Guo Quan announced that he would sue both Google and Yahoo due to excluding his name from its local search results. In Guo Quan’s opinion, ” to make money, Google has become a servile Pekinese dog wagging its tail at the heels of the Chinese Communists”. He was imprisoned for ten years in 2009. Conflicts between Google and China started to surface in 2009. In January 2009 Google was accused of making pornography available through its search engine. In June the Chinese authorities decided to punish the company for failing to remove pornographic content. Consequently, Google’s global website was blocked for hours. In January 2010 Google announced on its blog that accounts of human rights activists were hacked. In accordance with firm’s statement, the attacks had originated from China, although the authorities declared that they held no relation to or responsibility for these attacks. Furthermore, Google said that it was ” no longer willing to continue censoring the results” hinting at the possibility of shutting down Google.cn.
In March 2010 Google said it planned to re-route searches to its Hong-Kong site outside the reach of censorship. In an official blog post, Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, said” … No longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn. This may well mean having to shut down our offices in China.” He added that the Hong-Kong based search engine would be ”entirely legal” and ”meaningfully increase access to information for people in China”. Notably, China has respected freedoms in Hong Kong, since it regained the place in 1997. In the former British colony freedom of speech and other individuals liberties are protected. In July Google stopped the automatic redirect and created a static page for the Chinese users. Then, users mourned the departure and left flowers at firm’s office in Beijing. It could be said Google was made to follow the censorship rules, in order to operate in the fast-growing Chinese internet market. In other words, Google filtered itself, on ground that it expected to have a good share in the world’s largest internet base. This decision was thought to be controversial for its history. Unlike in the rest of the world, Google did not succeed in dominating the search engine market in China. Notably, Beijing-based Badu had 77 percent of the market share in that country and Google just 19, according to Fortune magazine. Taken account all these facts; it seems that initially Google accepted the terms of Chinese authorities, in order to expand its activities in the country. This means Google preferred to support its interests and profits. Therefore, it did not defend the right of free speech and censored a great amount of terms, despite the criticism. The reason for leaving from China and stopping censoring was the failure to achieve its financial and commercial targets.
Greece, especially its capital Athens, is the birthplace of democracy. The democracy in ancient Athens was said to be very developed in the past. A phrase in Iliad, a principal Homer’s figure of ancient Greek literature, said: “To speak his thoughts is every freeman’s right, in peace and war, in council and in fight.” However, violations of human rights are not uncommon in this country. A very interesting case for free speech in the Greek cyberspace is that of Press-gr. Press-gr has been one of the most visited blogs in the country. Its purpose has been to criticize the authorities and publish news that goes under the radar of the mainstream media. But, it was publishing so many exclusive documents, that it was annoying for some officials. Under these circumstances it was accused of blackmailing a journalist at a daily newspaper and threating to reveal information for his political connections in 2008. Due to this charge of blackmail, a special prosecutor authorized the Hellenic National Police’s cybercrime to initiate an international investigation. The investigation’s aim was to identify its anonymous bloggers, owners and operators. But, they could not be found without breaching the confidentiality of private data, which were protected under the Greek legislation. Therefore, this was a serious issue. Google cooperated on this case. It was said that the investigation was based on the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime (COE Convention). On 22nd February 2008 the police entered the home of one of the alleged writers at Press-gr, journalist Andreas Kapsambelis, in order to search for evidence about the blackmailing incident. Furthermore, his computer in his job was confiscated for the same reason. Interestingly, the authorities tried to conduct investigation to the Parliament, on ground that comments were found to have been posted from there. A month later, the Greek government announced that it would impose a new set of regulations about blogging activities. The most crucial issue was the battle against bloggers’ anonymity. Under this proposed law, anonymous postings would be illegal. Moreover, bloggers would be obliged to provide their true identities, in case that they planned to continue their online activities. Needless to mention the intense reaction from the Greek blog world.
As it seems, the Greek authorities attempted to censor a blog, because it revealed their wrongdoings. Undoubtedly, it was a violation of online free speech. Then, they tried to restrict the blogging activities and the public dialogue by legislation. But, the cyberspace is so huge, that it cannot be controlled easily. This means that the authorities, especially the Greek, had not realized its power. Even though they would pass such legislation, users could find alternatives to express themselves and to communicate freely.
Taken consideration the cases mentioned above, the online speech is not so free as it should have been. It is a serious issue not only for totalitarian regimes such as that of China but also for democratic societies, for example the American and the Greek society. They made attempts to stifle the online expression even by imposing criminal charges. Interestingly, even multinational technology companies, for example Google, obey these rules in China. Apparently, the authorities did not realize the Internet’s power, as it is a very difficult tool to control. As a result, the users will always find out an alternative way to avoid from censorship.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right which is connected with the human’s personality. The Internet has highly changed human’s life. Millions of people all over the world use it for different purposes. Most of them express their opinion through it. For this reason, the freedom of expression in the cyberspace has become a serious issue. Although the value of online freedom of expression has been theoretically recognized, the reality is much different. Therefore, people are not totally free to express themselves through the Internet, as it is monitored by governments. It would be expected that countries which are thought to be free and democratic such as the United States and Greece would try to protect the free online speech. However, it is not true. It is perceivable that any regime regardless of its democratic character is reluctant towards to the Internet. But the fear is not a good advisor. Interestingly, even companies such as Google in China do not challenge the online censorship. They prefer to violate human rights in favor of their interests. Finally it could be said that the freedom of expression in the Internet is restricted by the governments across the world. Notably any restriction can raise strong controversies immediately.
The online speech should be free and should be protected at any cost. It is significant, because anyone can express their voices through the Internet. Furthermore, people have become more active and informed; as a result they can react for any misjudgment, abuse of power from the authorities. Furthermore, they have the ability to be organized in order to support their opinions or people who are illegally punished. The web users are mature enough to distinguish the online mistakes and illegal methods.
Consequently, the freedom of expression in the cyberspace needs more protection. In the future the Internet will be developing, as more and more and a great amount of people across the world will use it. The issues such as the protection of online speech will be still interesting for all societies. Undoubtedly, more and more theoretical issues and cases about this topic will be emerged. Therefore, new trends may be created. All of us should pay our attention in order to protect significant rights such as the freedom of expression in the Internet. The solutions of such issues which are related to rights may lead to improve the human’s life and culture.
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