As the catalyst of the Information Age, the internet has had immeasurable cultural, economic, and political impacts on society. There are an estimated 4.5 billion websites and 2.2 billion internet users. Eighty-eight percent of Americans use the internet.
Because of its relatively unregulated and easily accessible nature, the internet is a haven for controversial forms of speech such as pornography, hate speech, political dissent, whistleblowing, and “lewd” art.
Given our reliance on the internet for accessing and disseminating information, it is no surprise that the internet has emerged as a free speech battleground and a target of censors. The 2000 Child Internet Protection Act requires public libraries that receive federal funding to install internet filters. The proposed 2011 Stop Online Piracy Act would have enabled law enforcement to restrict access to domains and web hosts due to copyright infringements by single blogs. It also would have required search engines to delete domain names.
In addition to these governmental censorship efforts, private websites frequently ban content that violates their terms of service—even when such content has clear political or artistic merit. This is especially problematic on major platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Reddit; political leaders use these websites to spread their ideas, and citizens rely upon them for information. Although these websites are private entities and are at liberty to adopt whatever speech policies they desire, their suppression of viewpoints and distortion of information harm open discourse.
In the last few months alone, there have been seemingly countless accusations of censorship levied at these platforms. Facebook has suppressed conservative news, banned nude artwork, and temporarily banned a radio host for linking to stories about rapes committed by Muslim refugees in Europe. Reddit administrators were accused of manipulating algorithms to prevent Donald Trump’s very popular Ask Me Anything from reaching the front page. Similarly, pro-Trump moderators banned 2,200 users who criticized Trump and his policies. Twitter recently banned famous conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, and Instagram deleted an artist’s photos of controversial murals of Hillary Clinton. The same artist’s photos of Trump murals went undeleted.