Freedom of Speech and the Internet

There’s a subject I’d like to bring up, having a soapbox, modest though it be. That is the subject of the freedom of speech and the Internet. I would really like to encourage people to take an interest in this because the Internet has become a primary means of communication and any laws or policies regulating its use is likely to have a significant impact on all of us, whether you see yourself as a heavy internet user or not. Thus far, the debate seems to be dominated by a couple of fairly narrow interest groups who have a disproportionate voice on a subject where the public good should be a deciding factor.

A red-bellied woodpecker and some house sparrows at a bird feeder.

Since I didn’t have any images that screamed “Internet” at me, you’re going to have to suffer through my latest bird feeder pictures.

Freedom of speech has long been a concern of mine. The particular set of concerns related to it brought up by the internet was reignited by a post on EOS Horizon. which talked about a debate currently happening in Sweden regarding the regulation of hate speech on the Internet. Reading the article as an American, I had forgotten at first that hate speech is regulated in many parts of the world. The Internet is global in scope, yet many of the laws regulating it are local. That should make for an interesting discussion.

There are quite a few overlapping issues and I have not fully developed my own ideas on the subject. I will be publishing a series of posts and I expect that my ideas will develop over time. One of the great things about blogging is the lack of any pretense towards authority. This allows me to engage in some thinking out loud.

Some of the subjects that I will be exploring will be:

  • Hate speech
  • Cyberbullying
  • Copyright laws
  • Copyright violations
  • Internet access
  • Government surveillance
  • Net neutrality

Usually theses subjects are discussed in isolation, but I believe that they are best approached as a group.

Two red-bellied woodpeckers, one male and one female, at a bird feeder.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen both Mr. and Mrs. Red at the bird feeder at the same time.

For this first post, I would simply like to cover some basic information about the technology. If you feel like I’m talking down to you, it’s because this preface is not for you. A great many people have asked me very basic questions about the Internet and the applications which use it, so I have reason to believe there is quite a bit of ignorance and confusion out there that hampers a broad discussion of the topic. For the purposes of discussing laws and policies that affect internet communication, everyone is capable of understanding the basics of the technology.

What is the Internet?

The same two woodpeckers as in the previous photo still at the feeder.

They’re probably loading up on calories and saving their strength for breeding season.

A number of years ago, a United States Congressman was mocked mercilessly for describing the Internet as a “series of tubes.” However, it’s not that bad an analogy. A better analogy might be a phrase that’s fallen out of use, “The Information Superhighway.” It’s that network of phone lines, fiber optic cables, television cables, wireless connections, and whatever else that carries information that can be accessed by a computer, including the little computer you carry in your pocket that doubles as a phone.

The Internet can carry all formats of information. For years most of us used the internet mainly for email and the World Wide Web, which we usually simply call the Web. Since then, we’ve come to use it for voice over IP (VoIP) functions like Skype, as a delivery system for movies and a variety of other things.

Large institutions, like corporations and universities, frequently have their own private networks, called “intranets.” The Internet is the large, widely shared, network that can be accessed by everyone.

Who Owns That Network?

This is an important point, because it’s definitely going to arise in some of the discussions. Networks cost money to install and maintain.

The Internet is comprised of many smaller networks that are connected together. Although no one owns the Internet, those smaller networks are owned by a variety of entities including private companies and governments. The Internet can only exist because these entities cooperate with one another.

What Is the Web?

The Web is a service that runs over the Internet. It is comprised of a huge number of documents, or computer files, that are formatted in a consistent way. This format allows them to be viewed by a web browser.

For our purposes, a characteristic that distinguishes the Web from many other services that run over the Internet is that it is non-proprietary. Everyone can use this format with out paying fees to the organization that created it.

What Are Apps?

The male woodpecker is still on the feeder and the female woodpecker is flying away.

Each spring, these two have a couple of young. That’s when the drumming starts, usually at dawn. This is one instance in which I wouldn’t mind limiting someone’s freedom of speech. They’re a beautiful family, but noisy.

The current usage of the word “app” that I find among my computer illiterate friends and family is a little concerning because people seem to be quite confused about what they are. The word “app” is simply a shortened form of the word “application.” In other words, an “app” is just another word for a computer program. However, these days, when people talk about apps, they seem to be thinking of the applications that are purchased, or downloaded for free, from services such as the Apple’s App Store and are usually intended for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers.

These applications make an excellent contrast with the Web. Many of these applications access information over the Internet. However, their format is often proprietary. No one else can use that format without permission of the owners. So, for instance, you can read articles published by the New York Times on their website via the Web, using a web browser. You can also have a New York Times app on your tablet computer and use that to read articles published by the Times. The New York Times App performs a function similar to the web browser. Both applications display The New York Time’s articles which have been delivered over the Internet. The difference is that The New York Times App only displays articles from The New York Times. The web browser can display articles from anyone who formats its information appropriately. Anyone includes you, because the format is non-proprietary – and that’s an important point to remember.

A Note to Techies

I’ve left out as much technical information as possible in this description and have tried to include only things that have a direct bearing on policy discussions so the broadest number of people can take part in this discussion. I’m far more knowledgeable than this simplification would suggest. I’ve tried to avoid all jargon, avoiding talking about protocol layering, gateways, routers and so on. In doing so, I have probably made some little errors. I almost certainly have left out some things that will turn out to be relevant. If you think of anything, please let me know, either in the comments or through the contact form on the About page so I can either update this page or include it in future posts. Thanks.

At some point, I’m going to be discussing specific legislation that’s been proposed to regulate the Internet. As an American, most of my familiarity is with U.S. laws. If anyone has links to legislation, either implemented or seriously proposed, in other countries, I’d appreciate the input. I can read articles in French as well as English. Unfortunately, any other languages will have to suffer through something like Google translate.

1 comment
  1. thank you for your free speech, free thinking, bold style of communication …
    also exactly my result too: “…lucky to not grow up in that environment…” – so I had the chance to create a new level of identity for my own, not chained by a stupid family structure; those who adopted me, have been devils too; my life began when teachers discovered and supported me… –
    greetings by

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