In Voltaire’s biography, S.G. Tallentyre penned the famous quote, “I disapprove of what you way, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This quote is often repeated in first-amendment discussions and freedom of speech debates, as it acknowledges the need to preserve freedom, even in spite of its allowance for distasteful and even potentially offensive expression.
The internet is a powerful venue for knowledge. With information on virtually any topic, collaborative forums, and a massive library of media, it seems at times that everything is available on the internet. However, it is not without its darker side. Within these vast catalogues of knowledge lurk immense amounts of disagreeable, offensive, and obscene material. Just above the blatantly illegal, this distasteful layer of information contains content that could be labeled as vile and revolting by any culture’s standards. The notion of striking this unsuitable material from the internet, and declaring hateful and repulsive content as ‘unfit for public consumption’ is tempting; essentially, mitigate the issue by removing offending content. In our effort to protect ourselves, however, we cannot disregard the freedom of speech. Is it proper to restrict expression on the internet for the sake of limiting exposure to offensive material?
The contention between freedom of speech and decency regulation supporters tends to dissipate when it comes to the topic of children. The objective for all involved appears to be the protection of the young (Seiger 14). To this effect, parents naturally serve as the front-line defense, and given the subjective nature of ascertaining the intolerable, they should also play a crucial role as decision makers for technical solutions. By leveraging sound judgment by individuals and a variety of technical tools, it should be possible to keep potentially damaging material out of the hands of children while preserving freedom of speech.
It is not feasible to preclude disagreeable content from the internet altogether. Proactive censorship via legislation has been attempted in the past. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) sought to control content by imposing fines and prison time for those using the internet to provide indecent or offensive content (United States). When exposed to the scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court, the law was deemed largely unconstitutional due to its vague terminology and restrictive implications toward protected speech (Reno). As a result, internet related material was largely stricken from the bill, to the delight of much of the mid-90’s online community (Seiger 13).
The internet operates on a global scale, and obscenity is often defined at the individual and community levels (Fee 1705). The inherently subjective nature of identifying offensive content presents a hurdle at the national level (Fee 1695), and with even greater divergent cultural globally, enforcing a preventative policy would likely be...