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Politicians and lawyers are poised to destroy Internet’s unprecedented opportunity for free speech. U.K. suffers serious setback, U.S. is next. 9/25/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Net Neutrality, Regulation.

In the U.K. last week, a billionaire was unhappy about what a blogger said about him. His lawyers threatened the blog’s totally innocent Internet Service Provider (ISP) with legal action. So, the ISP immediately pulled the plug on that blog and several others, including that of a London Mayoral candidate. In the world’s cradle of freedom, free speech was snuffed-out, just like that.

If you think it can’t happen here in the U.S., you haven’t been paying attention. Here’s Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, “We are all going to have to rethink how we deal with [the Internet] because there are all these competing values … Without any kind of editing function or gatekeeping function, what does it mean to have the right to defend your reputation, or to respond to what someone says?” Here’s FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, “We’re going at it without a policy…Whether it’s broadcast or broadband…you have the right to use these airwaves…But in return for that privilege, you need to be stewards of the public airwaves and serve the public interest.” There’s Google, which is selfishly trying to control its costs by pushing the government to regulate the Internet for the very first time, under the misleadingly-named “net neutrality” initiative. And, there’s several members of Congress itching to restore radio’s Fairness Doctrine, despite and because it successfully increased political debate, much of it unflattering to them.

When the printing press was invented, governments immediately moved to ban dissenting speech through censorship, licensing, prior restraint, and punishment. When broadcasting was invented, the federal government quickly seized control of the broadcast spectrum, assigned licenses for the use of specific frequencies, and made license renewal contingent upon “responsible” programming. That’s why the networks run such dull, plain vanilla, non-controversial news programming that tends to suck-up to those in power. So far, the Internet in the U.S. has been blissfully free of government regulation, retaining the promise of unprecedented opportunities for free speech. Will citizens rise-up and demand that the government keep its hands off the Internet, or will we sit on our hands and fail to protect the free speech of generations to come? So far, it is not looking good.


1. Adam - 9/26/07

My belief is that the first blow against free speech on the internet will come with the spread of free municipal internet.

They will provide it for political reasons, it won’t be as good as what private companies can provide, but since it will already be paid for a lot of people will opt to use it, at least at first. But since it is government-provided, they likely won’t feel the need to find excuses to control what can be done with it. Already, blogs such as Boing Boing cannot be accessed through the Boston municipal wi-fi filters.

As they get better at controlling the internet that they provide, the temptation to extend their reach into the realm of what’s allowed to happen in private internet, will undoubtedly grow.

That’s why I see resisting government-provided internet as an important front in keeping them out of internet entirely.

2. Steve Boriss - 9/26/07

Adam, I agree that Municipal WiFi is a serious threat to free speech for the same reasons, which is why I am pleased to see that this technology seems to be losing-out to WiMAX and other cell tower-based systems per my post here.

3. Robin Hamman - 10/9/07

You actually got this a bit wrong – the blog that the Uzbek businessman objected to wasn’t that of a London Mayoral Candidate. The candidate, Boris Johnson, simply had his site on the same server.

4. Steve Boriss - 10/9/07

Robin, Thanks, I’ve corrected the language. It looks like the original target of the attack was a former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, and the mayoral candidate was one of those pulled-off as well. While it does not change the point, I’m glad you clarified that.

5. Paul Foye - 10/16/07

This is fantastic news for victims of libel and defamation online from anonymous bloggers. Victims of malicious, libelous and anonymously posted content are on the rise, and a protocol for removing libelous content needs to be established.

We’ve lived in a country that has enforced libel laws while maintaining freedom of the press. Libel laws exist for a good reason.

6. Paul Foye - 10/16/07

Libel laws exist for a good reason. It’s about time that we start talking about channels to help victims of libel to protect their reputation.

Here is one excert that explains why.

“In the online world, rumors or outright lies are receiving unprecedented publicity primarily because Congress granted service providers (those not involved in, or responsible for, the content of a Web site) immunity from liability as publishers of defamatory content. Coupled with the anonymity of the Web, damaging lies are now easier to tell, and it is easier to tell them without getting caught. But these lies don’t just come across to others as baseless rumors. They now have credibility, because they are right there on the Internet to see! And, sometimes, others will appear to have posted similar false claims about the company, giving the appearance of independent validation. The source of the defamation seems to come from four types of online information purveyors: Weblogs, industry forums or boards, commercial Web sites, and self-proclaimed “consumer protection” sites. The rule of thumb in identifying the author of defamatory statements when your company is attacked on the Web is to ‘follow the money.’ There is almost always a direct economic motivation by the author.”

7. Steve Boriss - 10/16/07

Paul, I agree that victims of libel must be protected, but that it should be handled in courts, and in only the most serious cases. In a free society, I think that it is unacceptable that speech can be suppressed so easily by mere threats from lawyers. In fact in support of your point, I also think that citizens have not had adequate protections from journalists. At one time it was understood that the main target of the press was government — to prevent it from encroaching on individual rights. But now, business, which represents private individuals in “pursuit of happiness” is also seen as an enemy, and no distinction is made between the public and private lives of newsworthy individuals. Investigative journalism has been a license to kill reputations of innocents, who are not given the protections of normal legal processes.

8. Yasie is researching Internet based defamation and online libel - 5/8/08

How to remove Internet based defamation and online libel
I am currently researching the evolution of internet based defamation and online libel and its financial, emotional and commercial impact. I am also studying the world’s legal systems attempts to keep up with the internet explosion as it pertains to freedom of speech.
I will appreciate if lawyers, free speech enthusiasts and technology people who have valid comments contact me with their thoughts. Also, please send me links to any good reference material that you know of.
Based on my research, “winners” in court are far and few between. But online slander, libel & defamation is obviously a significant problem. These guys make a living out of getting online libel removed with out-of-court solutions, but they also assist attorneys in investigations: http://www.rexxfield.com . They do pro bono for victims that can’t get work due to libel.
Seeking case studies:
• Please help me if you know of real life examples of the following:
• Suicides or attempted suicide due to online libel or internet defamation
• Bankruptcy due to online defamation or internet based libel
• Divorce due to online libel or internet defamation
• Termination of employment due to online defamation or web based libel
• Physical assaults due to online libel or internet defamation
• Successful litigation against online libel or internet defamation activities
If there is someone else undertaking a similar study wishing to collaborate, I’d love to hear from you. The internet is a big place, there is much to sift through.
Thank you very much,
yaaawnn [at] gmail [d0t] com (that is G M A I L in case it doesn’t appear )
Keyw0rds only:
• Internet libel
• Online libel
• Web based libel
• Internet defamation
• Online defamation
• Web based defamation
• Internet slander
• Online slander
• Web based slander

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