Written by Sam Cook
The internet as we know it is nearly 30 years old. Sure, the web is a bit more complicated — and more intricately connected — than it was 30 years ago, but it’s no less of a modern Wild West today than it was in the 90s (although you may need to dig deep into the darknet to experience the real gun-slinging). The freedoms and anonymity we enjoy online are, however, constantly under scrutiny, by both governments and businesses alike.
At the heart of the issue many have with the internet in its current form is the aforementioned anonymity. That freedom is in no small part is guaranteed by the First Amendment, but it comes in direct conflict with the distinctly gray legal areas the internet seemingly creates with ease.
On the surface, online freedom of speech seems simple enough. The words inscribed within the First Amendment appear to be fairly straightforward in covering the topic:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
We see all of those freedoms expressed on the internet with stunning regularity. Religious websites of all kinds abound; people can and do say almost anything, sometimes with reckless abandon; newspapers are now surviving almost exclusively because of their internet presence; social media websites and online forums allow anyone to “assemble”; websites, such as petitions.whitehouse.gov, exist to streamline our legally-required right to petition the government.
Yet much of what happens on the internet falls more specifically under the broad concept of “free speech”. However, the definition of “speech” has expanded in the past 200 years to now include far more than just written or spoken words. Actions themselves can constitute free speech. This broad definition makes interpreting the freedoms, and subsequent limitations, all the more vague as some actions are certainly harmful to others in ways that infringe on their rights. Full text