AP: Right to free speech not guaranteed online
David Edwards and Muriel Kane
Published: Monday July 7, 2008

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Americans are accustomed to taking their free speech rights for granted and assume that is the case on the Internet as well. However, with major websites owned by corporations whose primary concern may be to limit controversial content or meet the guidelines set by other nations, even United States citizens may find their Constitutional guarantees do not apply online.

As the public discourse increasingly move onto sites like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, any actions by the owners of those sites that limit free speech will thus have a fundamental impact on what can and cannot be openly acknowledged and discussed.

According to the Associated Press, "Dutch photographer Maarten Dors met the limits of free speech at Yahoo Inc.'s photo-sharing service, Flickr, when he posted an image of an early-adolescent boy with disheveled hair and a ragged T-shirt, staring blankly with a lit cigarette in his mouth. Without prior notice, Yahoo deleted the photo on grounds it violated an unwritten ban on depicting children smoking."

Dors convinced a Yahoo manager that the photo provided a documentary statement about poverty in Romania, and it was restored. When another employee deleted it again a few months later, Dors got a second restoration and an apology.

Commercial sites like Flickr are generally more concerned with providing "a positive community experience" than with maximizing free speech, which is why they are willing to ban legal but potentially offensive materials. Adding to the problem is that "rules aren't always clear, enforcement is inconsistent, and users can find content removed or accounts terminated without a hearing."

Internet activist Lauren Weinstein told AP, "Vagueness does not inspire the confidence of people and leaves room for gaming the system by outside groups. ... When the rules are clear and the grievance procedures are clear, then people know what they are working with."

However, other civil liberties advocates believe that the private sector will never be committed to free speech, in part because it is overly sensitive to pressure from special interests. Recently, thousands of newsgroups were dropped by nervous service providers because a handful of them were carrying images of child pornography. In other cases, domain registrars have shut down entire websites because of unverified complaints or concerns about a single post.

AP concludes gloomily, "Community backlash can restrain service providers, but as Internet companies continue to consolidate and Internet users spend more time using vendor-controlled platforms such as mobile devices or social-networking sites, the community's power to demand free speech and other rights diminishes."

The full Associated Press story is available here.

This video is from The Associated Press, broadcast July 7, 2008.

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