Monday, July 4, 2011

Free Speech and the Internet

New York Times
July 3, 2011

As the United Nations has said, access to the Internet is a human right. A report by the U.N.’s special rapporteur presented last month to the Human Rights Council in Geneva warns that this right is being threatened by governments around the world — democracies included.

The main concern is about oppressive regimes trying to squash political dissent — like China, which jails bloggers, blocks Web sites and filters the Internet to eradicate words, including “democracy,” from the conversation.

The report also warned against overzealous attempts by democratic states to control or censor online communications. Stopping infringement of intellectual property or the distribution of child pornography is legitimate. But governments must protect citizens’ rights to speak freely — anonymously when necessary.

In Italy, a court convicted Google executives because a user uploaded a video on YouTube depicting cruelty to a disabled teenager, even though Google quickly removed the offending content. Brazil’s Congress is debating legislation that would require Internet service providers to keep a log of customers’ online activity for three years, which authorities could access without a court order to pursue crimes such as calumny.

The French and British parliaments have passed draconian laws that would ban users from the Internet for illegally downloading copyrighted material. The United States Senate is considering an intellectual property bill that would allow the government or private businesses to take action against a potentially large array of Web sites for “facilitating” piracy, an excessively broad definition.