Free Expression on the Internet: Background

The Internet presents a powerful new tool for fostering open communication and knowledge sharing among individuals. As with other comunications media, however, governments around the world are concerned about the availability of certain information on the Internet, and have taken different measures to restrict content they find objectionable. Many repressive governments, under the pretence of protecting morals or the security of the state, block access to large parts of the Internet, especially websites containing political and human rights criticisms of those governments. Others have passed new laws, or extended existing laws, criminalizing the publication or transmission of certain materials in cyberspace. Because of the difficulty of enforcing these laws across this global medium, many have advocated a self-regulatory approach towards Internet regulation, developing technical systems for rating and filtering. Much of the focus of these systems has been on protecting children from sexual, violent or otherwise “harmful” material. Often characterized by their proponents as mere features or tools, filtering and rating systems can also be viewed as fundamental architectural changes that may, in fact, facilitate the suppression of speech far more effectively than national laws alone ever could. International human rights and free expression groups oppose all such attempts, whether legal or technological, to censor Internet content arguing that restrict legitimate and valuable speech and threaten intellectual freedom.