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Free Expression

An Unfortunate (and I hope temporary) Change of Heart …

The year was 1995 and the biggest threat to Internet free speech was a bill called the “Communications Decency Act.” If passed, the bill threatened to criminalize all manner of constitutionally protected speech under the guise of keeping “indecent” material from being viewed by children. Momentum for passage of the bill was enormous. The bill passed House with barely a hint of opposition. The vote in the Senate was little better; only 16 Senators bucked the political headwinds and remained steadfast in their vision of the Internet as a new and exciting ground for free expression and innovation. Among those voting against the CDA was Senator Joe Lieberman. And he proved to be right about the CDA — a federal court immediately enjoined the enforcement of the new law, and 18 months later the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. What a difference a decade makes.

Last week Senator Lieberman sent a letter demanding that the Google-owned video site YouTube scour its user contributed online offerings and remove any that smacked of supporting terrorism or carrying threatening messages fomenting terrorism. Google appropriately reviewed the YouTube videos and removed 80 of them from the site because they violated YouTube’s long-established terms of service agreement. But Lieberman demanded more. He insisted that YouTube begin to proactively censor content based on its origin alone, regardless of what the video contained. It is an outlandish request and cuts against First Amendment freedoms. Beyond the clear constitutional prohibition against mandating content restrictions, Internet censorship is, frankly, highly unlikely to be effective. Internet-based content isn’t like the open ranges of the Wild West, able to be fenced off with barb wire. Shutting off one particular access point is likely to spawn two or three more and all outside the reach of the government trying to shut off access. When you come right down to it, Internet censorship is little more than virtual game of Whack-A-Mole. Senator Lieberman should realize this, especially considering his courageous vote against the CDA. Let’s hope that courage, once found, is found again, and the Senator regains his vision of the Internet as a platform for openness, innovation and free expression. Expanded reading on Lieberman’s letter in our Huffington Post blog entry.