The preservation of freedom of expression

The right to expression yourself is a primary human right. The possibility to give your opinion about every thinkable topic, freely without any fear of the consequences. There are many rules to preserve the freedom of expression from the media. With the emergences of the internet an new technology has arisen. A new way of communication and a new way to access all kind of sources all over the world. The internet is an open network with a very unique character. But the great power of the internet is at the same time the greatest weakness. The fact that is an open medium means that it can endanger the freedom of expression. In addition to that, there is a large number of people around the world who don’t have access to the internet. It is a challenge for the modern state to find a perfect balance between regulation and the preservation of a primary human right.

Nowadays many of us consider freedom of expression as a natural freedom, although it was not always considered a natural right. In 1948 the right of freedom of expression was recognized by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ (Article 19). With the emergence of the internet, people had been introduced to a new form of human interaction and a whole new source of information. Although this new technology became very popular over the years and it seems to have a lot of advantages, new questions arised.

With the access to the World Wide Web, people can cross borders online and it seems like the perfect way to express yourself without limits. It is supposed to be an open medium, but at the same time it is supervised by the government. People presume that the internet is just a new form of communication, a new medium without any limits, but what are the consequences of this new medium? Does the internet works as a force for freedom of expression as people think it does, or is it used as a possible tool for control of the public?

A new medium

Media always has been a great way of informing and educating people. With the emergence of books, newspapers and later the arise of telephones and television, people got more and more knowledge of the world around them. Simultaneously the emergence of new media was a way for the rulers, to get more control over the people and to influence them. In the last centuries more and more forms of mass media’s have arised. The internet is one of the newest forms of media and it still has growing public interest. The internet became more popular over the last decades and it has introduced us to new forms of human interaction ( Jorgensen, 2001). Via the internet people have instant access to the World Wide Web, which includes pages, sites and information from all over the world of every imaginable subject. It is a major liberator that gives you the opportunity to express yourself and to give your opinion about every thinkable topic (McSmith, 2007). It is a very easy and productive way to promote freedom of expression, to get unfettered access to any source and to speak open and critical, without fear. With the decline of the participation of democracy the new technology seems to be an agency for that decline. The internet has been seen as a great medium which makes true democracy possible (Jacobs, 1998). Because you can be anonymous on the internet, class and origin play no part online, neither do sex, race, age or any other kind of identification. Without centralized control, people are free to read and publish anything they want and to exchange information with anyone they want.

The internet is a global network and a global medium of communication. The internet is seen as an open network, because it is not administered by one single entity. The internet is accessible for the public, but at the same time it can be a very private and closed medium. Via email or private chat rooms is closed for the public and only open for certain people. The unique character of the internet clarifies itself by the variety of communications forms (Jorgensen, 2001). The internet provides the opportunity for dialogic communication as well as monologic communication. Sending emails, allows you to communicate one-to-one or even one-to-many. While mass media allows the sender to reach a vast audience. The internet gives you fast en free access to global information and individuals can provide and receive information with anyone, without having to meet face-to-face. But the internet is also a great way for newsgroups to discuss openly over different topics, or to chat with groups of peoples. So also many-to-many communication is possible via the internet. Therefore the internet is extremely different from any other medium (Jorgensen, 2001).

Protecting freedom of expression

Because the internet makes a whole new way of communication possible, new questions arise. ‘It is moving all the traditional boundaries of time and space’ (Norris, 2004). Together with the anonymity that comes with it, there is hardly any control about preservation of human rights. Human rights used to be about protecting the freedom of the individual from the interference of the state. Nowadays, when we talk about freedom of expression it also includes the protection from other citizens, who might abuse their human rights to discriminate or disrespect others. Freedom of expression is a primary right and it is indispensable if we want to make democracy work. People deserve the right to vote and participate in decision-making. Essential to make that happen is free access to information. Access to information is necessary to participate and to form an objective opinion. Even more important, everyone has to be able to express their opinions and views freely (Human rights education associates, 2010). The right of freedom of expression is not an absolute right. Extreme expressions can cause conflicts between rights and values. Therefore, the system can limit the freedom of expression. There are certain restrictions to counter discrimination and disrespect. It is a very vulnerable issue as there is a fine line between freedom of expression and protecting human rights (Human rights education associates, 2010). Regrettably, just like other powers, the internet is open to misuse (McSmith, 2007). Not everyone who has access to participate has good intentions. There are always people who take advantages of the freedom of this technology. Therefore there are certain boundaries, controlled by the government. When it comes to protecting children and people from the dangers of the internet, the government tries very hard to restrict the spread of illegal internet sites such as child pornography.

This means that the great power of the internet is at the same time the greatest weakness. No one has control over the internet (McSmith, 2007). Norris (2004) stated in his article that it is important that the media are free and independent. When there is freedom of expression and widespread public access to media, governments will be more successful, stronger and more stable. Unfortunately, although limitations by the government are not sufficient, they are necessary. Even though the internet gives us great possibilities, we learned by experiences that, there need to be certain rules. Before the emergence of the internet the mass media was the main mediator of the opinion of the public. All the information spread out by the mass media was filtered and chosen by editors to publish. The information is selected because the media is not able to present every opinion and every voice of the public. They can never publish or broadcast all the information. The most people are simple receivers of information, because the change for average persons to express their opinions on television or radio is very small. With the advent of the internet, new actors and gatekeepers appeared. Although people have freedom of expression, telecom and mass media are state-regulated and also print media are supervised by the state. The idea behind this is that people are protected from abuses such as discriminations done by other citizens. With the emergence of the internet as a new technology the question arises if it needs the same regulations as other mass media.

Internet Censorship

Like all other media the internet is censored by the state. Governments of non-democratic counties are using censorship, but also democratic states are regulating their media. The idea behind regulation of the state is to protect the people from who are crossing the lines of humanity and morality and abuses the freedom they have online. It is definitely not the intention to limit the right of freedom of expression. With other media it is much easier to control everything that is being published. While the internet is an international network and the national borders are more pervious online. Everyone will be able to find information on websites hosted by other countries. Although governments can prevent their people from viewing certain sites by filtering what people can and cannot access. The main issues that are controlled by most media are vulgarity, racism and violence (Pallai, 2010). The good thing about censorship is that it prevents provocative material that is very likely to offense others. Everyone has freedom of expression but at the same time no one has the right to discriminate or disrespect someone. Also controls the state online advertising. To discourage people from for example smoking or drinking, there is no advertisement about those stimulants. Also to protect people’s privacy, to prevent plagiarism and to conserve morals are reasons for censorship by the state (Pallai, 2010). Some are against censorship by the state because in their opinion it affects the freedom of expression. Withholding information can lead to a lack of knowledge and a completely wrong image among the people. Sometimes it can be good to learn from extreme topics such as the dangers of sexual diseases or mindless violence by showing the public instead of trying to hide it. Besides that, when you are trying to hide issues from the people they might become more curious about it. And people should have the right to know and the right to receive reliable and accurate information. If people are badly informed they might fail to see their actual interest. (Norris, 2004)

Censorship is a very complicated topic and it the government might misuse the power they have to withhold information from the people in their own advantage. However used properly, censorship can be a very valuable and useful tool. As long as it is only used to prevent abuse on the internet and to protect people from getting hurt, while maintaining the freedom of expression.

Because the internet is growing, it is very likely to result in more and more control and surveillance by the state and corporations (Friedman, 1996). Simultaneously it leads to new forms and ways of communication, which will grow the treat of surveillance. It will threaten privacy and the rights of individuals, just as the rights of groups to discuss and organize on the internet. Important here is that, although privacy is threatened by many different departments, Friedman (1996) argues that the number one treat is surveillance by the government. We have to pay attention to the fact that the distribution of information technology is very likely to lead to a society that is less en less self-governed. Limitations on the internet are a fine line between protecting the people from dangers of the new technology and maintaining the right of freedom of expression. But we have to make sure that, by putting restricting on the accessibility of the internet, we don’t prejudice the great positive potential of this new technology. Because maybe some rules devised for other kinds of media, might be unsuitable for the internet (Human rights education associates, 2010).

An other disadvantage that influences the freedom of expression is the accessibility of it. The cost of the internet, once provided a computer, are significantly lower than most other communication media. However anyone who wants to participate needs the hardware that is necessary to get online. That means you have to have the money for purchasing computer equipment. Although the internet is a very fast growing new technology, it is still not available for the most people in the world (Hacker, 1996). The biggest problem that arises is that a great part of the people doesn’t have the funds to get access to the internet, which means they are not able to participate. ‘New technologies favor those who with capital, more than those without capital’ (Hacker, 1996, pp. 226). Friedland (1996) stated in his article that democracy is changed by the internet but it is seldom thoroughly specified. With the emergence of this new technology, a new form of democracy arises, which leads to new citizen practices. The increase of a confidential information infrastructure will cause a growing inequality between the people who have access to all the information and the ones who have not. Therefore it will threaten democratic participation. The only way to secure that everyone has the same benefits and access to the information is making sure the sector is controlled by public provision and contribution.

Conclusion

Freedom of expression is a primary human right and everyone deserves that right. With the emergence of the internet people have been introduced to a whole new form of human interaction. With the access to the World Wide Web people are able to cross borders and to express their selves freely, without limits. Because the internet is not administered by one single entity, it is a very open medium, which clarifies itself by the variety of communications forms. With hardly any boundaries it is difficult to protect the human rights. The great power of the internet is at the same time the greatest weakness. Like other media, the internet is censored by the state. Important is to make sure that we don’t prejudice the great positive potential of this new technology by putting restriction on the internet. The internet will have a positive impact on freedom of expression and democracy as long as it represents the voice of the public, without limit (Norris, 2004). Unfortunately the control of the state often limits the freedom of expression, ignoring the interests and the needs of the public. Even though it is not the most sufficient choice, censorship by the government is necessary. Norris (2004) is making clear that states with free, widespread and independent media are stronger and more stable than others. It illustrates that free and uncensored media can play an essential role in maintaining democracy and freedom of expression. In addition to that there is a large group in the population that doesn’t have access to the internet. There will be a growing inequality between the people who have access and the ones who have not and that will threaten democratic participation. The only way to secure equality is making sure the internet is controlled by the state.

References:

Article 19. International treaties, principles and declarations. [Online]

Available at: http://www.article19.org/work/regions/latin-america/FOI/english/intstandards/index.html (Accessed: 31 October 2010)

Friedland, L. A. (1996). Electronic democracy and the new citizenship. Media, Culture & Society 18(2), pp. 185-212.

Hacker, K. L. (1996). Missing links in the evolution of electronic democratization. Media, Culture & Society 18(2), pp. 213-232.

Human rights education associates (2010). Freedom of expression. [Online]. Available at: http://www.hrea.org/index.php?doc_id=408 (Accessed: 1 November 2010)

Jacobs, J. (1998). Democracy and the internet. [Online].

Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/ola/citizen/interdemoc/democ.htm (Accessed: 30 October 2010)

Jorgensen, R. F. (2001). Internet and freedom of expression. [Online]. Available at:

http://scholar.google.nl/scholar?q=internet+and+freedom+of+expression&hl=nl&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart (Accessed: 31 October 2010)

McSmith, A. (2007). The big question: does the internet liberate or undermine democracy? The Independent, 23 February 2007. [Online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-big-question-does-the-internet-liberate-or-undermine-democracy-437477.html (Accessed: 30 October 2010)

Norris, P. (2004). Giving a voice to the voiceless: good government, human development and mass communications. [Online]. Available at: http://ksghome.harvard.edu/~.pnorris.shorenstein.ksg/Acrobat/Pfetsch%20chapter.pdf. (Accessed: 1 November 2010)

Pillai, P. (2010). Pros and cons of censorship. [Online].

Available at: http://www.buzzle.com/articles/pros-and-cons-of-censorship.html (Accessed: 1 November 2010)

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