Craig Parshall, General Counsel


That “Other” Threat on the Web

April 18, 2012

There are numerous threats to the average citizen that emanate from the web. Families with children, for instance, have to guard against predators and pornography. Then there is the threat of invasions of personal privacy through new Internet technology, along with questions about how that data is used. That last issue is illustrated aptly by the decision against Google last Friday from the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, proposing a $25,000 fine against the new media giant for “deliberately imped[ing] and delay[ing]” the Commission’s investigation into Google’s collection of citizen data as part of its “Street View Project,” which has been described by the New York Times as a “plan to photograph and map the inhabited world, one block at a time.” But meanwhile, there is that “other” threat on the Internet, one that strikes at the most fundamental freedom of expression of citizens, one that NRB is currently addressing. This week Sweden is hosting its international “Forum on Internet Freedom” with delegates from around the world, including the U.S. Department of State. The conference is touting the idea of the “Internet as a space where people have the power to express themselves freely …” NRB, through its John Milton Project for Religious Free Speech, saw this issue coming and began work on the free speech aspects of the web several years ago, culminating in the release of the report, True Liberty in a New Media Age last September at the National Press Club. The report details viewpoint-based censorship on the Internet, including the banning of some Christian content. But solutions are neither clear nor easy. Next month, the John Milton Project will host a discussion on Capitol Hill in an effort to address the tricky balance between important free market principles that have stimulated the growth of Internet technology, and freedom of speech values that can be compromised when new media companies ban expression on their platforms irresponsibly.     

Admittedly, other web problems, like privacy intrusions, are serious. According to the FCC bureau, while Google scanned homes with its mapping project, it also picked up wireless signals containing “emails, URL’s … as well as passwords …” of American citizens. But I would suggest a hierarchy in these risks. Heavy-handed government regulation of the Internet could end up crippling investment in web platforms and limit their advances in a very fundamental way. At the same time, however, if we can be arbitrarily blocked from communicating on emerging web platforms because of our viewpoints, then we can be silenced from talking digitally about the host of other Internet risks as well.