Final frontier for free speech under siege: a special report on Internet censorship

Thursday, May 7, 1998
Who will control the Internet? The medium, which has given rise to so much optimism for its potential to make accessible virtually unlimited information to the world's masses, is currently the scene of a ferocious winner-take-all battle for control. The outcome will determine what form the Internet will take. Will it remain an easily accessible, freely flowing reservoir of information or will it become merely another advertising and publicity tool for corporate and state interests? An insightful and provocative look at this critical power struggle has today been published "online" by the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, Canada's premier freedom of expression organization. Censorship and the Internet: The Challenges for Free Expression Online, is the most comprehensive study of the state of freedom on the Net to date. It looks at the players vying to gain dominance over the Internet, their reasons for wanting control, and the lengths they will go to achieve the takeover. Censorship addresses the two principal arenas for the struggle to control the Internet: Government and Business. Beyond the predictable efforts of authoritarian governments to restrict Internet access and content, Censorship and the Internet exposes distressful legislative attempts in Canada and the U.S. to grant sweeping powers to enforce "appropriate" Internet content guidelines. At the corporate level, the report asks how Microsoft's virtual monopoly in the computer operating systems and software market affects the diversity of information as it manouevres to control the browser market as well. Regardless, even if one mega-corporation fails to achieve monopoly control, there will still be only a limited number of conglomerate owners of the Internet infrastructure. The estimated cost of providing more and advanced capacity runs in the billions of dollars. Users can therefore expect to see significant increases in their Internet access rates, or companies will turn to advertising for revenue. If either of these changes come into effect, the report warns that "the number of voices heard on the Internet, particularly those which conflict with certain advertisers or even the communications companies themselves, will likely be reduced substantially." The section on access addresses the troubling aspect of Internet poverty in the developing world. Other areas addressed are regulation of users and Internet Service Providers, Internet legislation targeted at hate speech, Internet ratings and filters, the politics of encryption, and gender imbalance on the information highway. Censorship and the Internet: The Challenge for Free Expression Online is available online.

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