Wednesday, March 30, 2005
On this day:

Free Speech and the Internet

As every blogger knows, one of the greatest things about the internet is that it is a powerful and unprecendented medium for debate and deliberation between ordinary people from all walks of life. "Powers that be" around the world have been taken off guard by this explosion of free debate and inquiry, and are struggling to keep up. Those who have grown secure in their positions of power have never before had to deal with such a widespread challenge to their authority. The temptation to regulate and restrict the new medium while it is still in its infancy has become almost irresistable. (See here, for example.)

Even here in America, where freedom of speech is cherished and protected, some in government and the media are beginning to discuss ways to "contain" the internet revolution. Don't get me wrong - some of the measures being considered and implemented are legitimate. The internet has given rise to new challenges in protecting intellectual property, regulating commerce, ensuring fair and equitable taxation, and preventing the distribution of illegal materials, substances, and services. Each of these challenges is a legitimate object of government power, and even most libertarians would agree that action to address them is warranted.

However, some of the measures being discussed are aimed at restricting the political speech that lies at the core of the First Amendment. They have been justified under various pretexts, most notably that of "campaign finance reform." Some politicians, regulators, and members of the news media are "concerned" that the rise of alternate media on the internet could undermine government regulation of issue advocacy advertisements and contributions to political candidates. For example, if I write a series of blog posts supporting Ralph Nader for President, should I have to report that to the Federal Elections Commission as a "contribution" to the Nader campaign. Should my blog become subject to campaign finance regulations that prohibit "advertising" for Nader during the 30 days before a general election?

These threats to free speech are very real and shouldn't be dismissed, but we are fortunate in that we live under a Constitution that largely shields us against government encroachments on our right to speak freely. We can only hope that the inevitable backlash against any large-scale attempt to restrict political deliberation would put a quick end to such meddling. But, as this article by James D. Miller at TechCentralStation warns, the coming "war on blogs" may not be limited to campaign finance regulations, but may also be fought on at least two new fronts - libel law and copyright law. All the more reason for bloggers and their friends to remain on guard.