In the last two decades, the Internet has grown at an incredible rate and has rapidly become more accessible to people of all walks of life, throughout the world. Google now claims to index over 3 billion Web sites. It is no surprise, then, that the “information superhighway” has become an especially heated battleground for free speech.
The Internet poses unique challenges for those who would try to hamper free expression as well as for those who campaign to defend it. Because the technology for disseminating information has evolved so quickly (now including increasingly sophisticated peer-to-peer networks for sharing data), legislation finds it hard to keep up with the possibilities for expression made possible by this medium. However, security devices, sometimes implemented in conjunction with government efforts to suppress free speech – as in the case of China’s “Golden Shield” – can limit users’ access to certain kinds of content and make startling infringements on their privacy.
Because of its relatively unregulated and universally accessible nature, the Internet quickly became a haven for pornography as well as many types of challenged speech including political dissent, hate speech, and corporate whistle-blowing.
In February of 1996, Congress enacted the Communications Decency Act (CDA). CDA sought to protect minors from harmful material online by criminalizing transmission of “indecent” materials to minors. However, in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union that CDA was an unconstitutional restriction on the Internet, which they called a “unique and wholly new medium of worldwide human communication” deserving of full First Amendment protection.
Much of the debate and legislation concerning censorship of the internet is centered on efforts to protect minors from sexually explicit content. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled to implement the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which required that filters be placed the content available on library computers. Unfortunately, these regulations have unexpected consequences – for example, that the filters often inadvertently block innocent speech.