Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 4 Law: Freedom of Speech and Censorship


Before there were any computers there were laws that provide for guidelines for human behavior and sanctions for those act deemed most reprehensible or dangerous or intolerable if humans are to live with one another in groups and have a social life.   As computers have been introduced and their power and uses continually expanded there have been laws violated and laws observed and new laws created.  Computers have been used to commit old crimes in a new way.  Computer technologies have also been used in ways that have led to new laws to prevent what have been seen as new crimes - those not possible before the advent of the computer technologies.  In this chapter there will be attention given to the relation of Law to computer technologies focused on the law that provides for the basic or foundational freedoms of speech and of the press and practices involving the computer technologies that have presented challenges to the traditional conceptions of those freedoms and the grounding of those freedoms in such entities as the constitution and local laws and court decisions.

Computers have facilitated the creation, storage and transmission of huge amounts of information and provided for access to that information in an ever growing number of ways and with an increasing number of devices.  From more locations on planet Earth people have access to more types of information and in more ways than ever before.  And all of that is increasing each year.  For the most part people think of this as a good thing.  But then again problems have developed.  A number of problems and of various sorts concerning the accuracy of the information , the potential harmfulness of the information, the manner in which the information was obtained and how it is being displayed or offered.  The basic value of FREEDOM of expression is being opposed by a sense that people have that harm to human beings should be avoided and most particularly harm to innocent children.

Some of what will be presented in this chapter will deal with freedom of speech and child pornography.  There are other examples of where computer technologies present potential harms to others as well as in violations of their privacy that will be dealt with in subsequent chapters.

Law also comes into play with computer technologies as they have presented novel creation that law had not previously considered and there arose a need to create new law such as in the case of the claim that ideas about how to process information should be considered as property of the inventor or creator, thus Intellectual Property law needed to expand to cover software and programming and database creations that were non-existent prior to electricity and the  computing machines.  Enough folks thought that there were harms occurring and potential harms to the future development of technologies valuable to society that lawyers, judges and social policy makers created a new from of property through law.  This topic is significant in its own right and will be covered in a subsequent chapter.

If you consider so basic a principle as the freedom of speech, something that is highly valued in democratic societies, then the existence of computers and the information systems and networks they make possible will bring about something of a re-conception of that principle.  So many people have so many ways of receiving and sending information to so many people that the power of speech has changed. Printing presses and internet sites, telephones and cell phones, instant messaging and text messages, email and electronic bulletin boards and chat rooms and "myspace" networks and on it goes: an increasing number of ways in which speech is communicated and to the entire world's population.  How does so much speech to so many people cause us to think about the principle of freedom of speech?

What is the law regarding speech in the USA?  What is that notion of freedom of expression through speech or print or electronic media such as radio and television?

 READ  Freedom of Expression ACLU

How are such notions mitigated or impacted or challenged by the development of computer technologies and the internet and all that incorporates and represents?

 READ The Constitution in Cyberspace, by Laurence H. Tribe

Tribe concludes with a rather strong call for an extension of the constitutional protections
 to clearly encompass the new technologies:
It would be fitting, in a world where youth 
has been enfranchised, for a twenty-seventh amendment to spell a kind of
"childhood's end" for constitutional law.  The Twenty-seventh Amendment,
to be proposed for at least serious debate in 1991, would read simply:
"This Constitution's protections for the freedoms of speech, press,
petition, and assembly, and its protections against unreasonable searches
and seizures and the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without
due process of law, shall be construed as fully applicable without regard
to the technological method or medium through which information content
is generated, stored, altered, transmitted, or controlled."

Now an examination of the ongoing tension between the value placed on freedom of expression and some of the uses of the new computer technologies.

Here are two such cases:

 READ Banning newsgroups at CMU in 1994

 READ The Great Cyberporn Scare of 1995

For a more general overview of such cases consider:

Readings on Computer Communications and Freedom of Expression


Internet Free Speech Under Attack by Government, Provocateurs

Part 1

Part 2

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents