Is the Internet Too Free?

By Amy Gastright '21

February 2019 Issue 

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       In the animated hallways at the Saint Stephen’s and Saint Agnes Upper School campus, students walk with their noses buried in cell phones, thumbs rapidly tapping from iMessage to Snapchat. To find out the news, we look at by-the-second updates on Twitter or Instagram. When we don’t know something, we can instantly access limitless information via Google, or simply by asking Siri. We can “stalk” people we want to know more about on social media platforms. In a world where everyone is connected on social media and the web, information and data is shared constantly.

       Much of the information online has a positive influence, however, some of the information online is unreliable, or even unsafe and inappropriate. According to a survey taken by the students at SSSAS Upper School, 85% of the 82 respondents believe that internet content is only reliable some of the time. In addition, 98% said that some content on the internet is not suitable for children. Surely, if we, as a society, do not fully trust the information that is on the internet, there is some need for some form of management for all the available content.

       In an interview, Dean McGuire said, “I am somebody that really tries to lean into as much transparency as possible;” However, she admitted that given a good reason, she might feel the need to pick through information. For instance, she said that she looked through the “This is a Controversial Issue” newspaper in advance “just to make sure there wasn't something there that was deemed inappropriate.”  

       She continued, “But there was nothing that I could find even close to inappropriate because it's speaking the truth. To cover up the truth seems silly. So, I haven't been in a situation at this school where I feel like we're deliberately keeping information from students.”

       But SSSAS is just one community. On a larger scale, controlling information on the internet is a risky business. Too little internet regulation poses a threat to user privacy and enables internet crime like credit card scams. According to a 2018 article by NPR, Chinese hackers are likely to blame for the massive Marriott data breach due to the easy-access nature of the U.S.’s current internet. In addition, the anonymity of hiding behind a username with no accountability for the things we do online makes social media platforms a breeding ground for cyberbullying.

      Too much internet censorship, however, is a clear violation of the right to free speech and expression. As Americans, we have the right to say what we want on all platforms, no matter whose feelings it hurts or how rebellious it may seem. The government has tried to regulate U.S. citizens’ access to the internet in the past, though many of Congress’ attempts have been struck down by federal judges. For example, the Communications Decency Act, enacted in 1996, attempted to prevent minors from viewing pornographic content online, but it was found to be an unconstitutional violation to the freedom of speech just a year later.

      As a whole, in the United States, we are used to being able to say, both out loud, in print, or online, anything that we want. Not everyone has the right to open speech and expression, though. China, for example, now boasts a brand new wall, the “Great Firewall” of China. According to a 2019 article by the New York Times, China has implemented an extremely sophisticated internet censorship program, one that prevents its internet population of over 800 million users from seeing any content that might pose a threat to the communist party’s control of the government.

      The extent of China’s government’s control over online content is staggering. According to a 2016 article by the Washington Post, Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were all blocked from the Chinese internet by 2009 and continue to be off-limits. In 2017, CNBC conducted an interview with a Chinese medical student named Zahra now living in the United States. Zahra described the Chinese firewall as “being shut off from the world.”

How is that extreme level of internet regulation possible? According to that 2019 New York Times article, China has thousands of specially trained professional censors who scour the internet for any traces of public dissent against the government or its policies. Li Chengzhi, one of these censors, blocks any posted online content that alludes to government leaders or scandals, including articles, websites, memes, and satire.

      The idea of an internet without freedom may be foreign to us, but many users of the Chinese internet do not seem to notice or care that their internet is limited. According to a survey study by the University of California at Irvine, 80% of “urban Chinese citizens” who responded to the survey said that there should be control over the internet. Li Chengzhi, from the New York Times article, said that internet censorship “helps cleanse the online environment.” In addition, 85% of the survey respondents supported government control over the internet. Did they respond in this way because it is what they truly believed? Or rather, could it have been that their lack of access to an internet with the ability to be critical of society has brainwashed them into believing that their internet is the best or safest version?

      When asked the same questions, students at the SSSAS Upper School, U.S. citizens with a far less controlled internet, responded very differently from the survey respondents in China. Only 30% thought that the internet should be censored, and only 16% supported government control over the internet. In fact, 55% of respondents thought that either web developers or internet users should control what content is available online, instead of the government. One respondent added that “the first amendment reigns supreme.” In other words, our right to free speech should ensure that the internet is not censored at all. That said, 65% thought that internet crime should be regulated. In addition, 84% of the survey respondents agreed that pornographic content should be censored to prevent people from seeing explicit content who might not want to, especially in pop-up ads.

       For the most part, the students at SSSAS who opposed government control of what can be seen online fear that allowing the government to control what we can see might alter public opinion. For example, one respondent said that “if someone had the power [to control visible content online] they could use it to influence the people.” Another said that the ability to pick and choose what information gains prevalence or is widely visible “can mislead people… it’s the most threatening part of American society today.” This practice of using one’s platform, and thus, one’s visibility to online users, is infamously known as “fake news.”

       There are plenty of examples of times when the information shared by influential people was done in a deliberately political, and even manipulative way. According to a 2017 article by Rolling Stone, a famous example of this occurred in October of 2016 when Info-Wars host Alex Jones presented a conspiracy theory about how Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chairman John Podesta were somehow involved in a child sex-ring based out of the “nonexistent basement” of Washington DC restaurant Comet Ping Pong. According to a 2017 article by NPR, this false rumor, now known as “pizzagate,” lead Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina to enter the restaurant with an AR-15 rifle and fire several shots while demanding to see the basement on December 1, 2016, just three months after the original Facebook post. Because Alex Jones did not personally initiate the unfounded conspiracy theory, according to the 2017 article by Rolling Stone, “it was unclear whether Pizzagate was mass hysteria or the work of politicos with real resources and agendas.” That said, it is impossible to ignore the political implications of the claim- especially given the timing of right before the 2016 presidential election. Alex Jones, either knowingly or unknowingly, used his platform on the internet to influence people's perceptions of a serious candidate for the presidency with entirely false allegations. Clearly, “Fake News” has real consequences.  

      If assuming gentle censorship is something that the United States needs to consider for its version of the internet, how should we go about it? Should we follow China’s example, with human censors scouring the internet for anything that should be removed? One respondent to the student survey wrote another interesting idea. This respondent said, “It should be filtered, with filters allowed to be turned off.” By having a robotic system that can easily be altered or turned off, we eliminate the fear that our first amendment rights might be infringed upon, as users are the ones in control of what content is censored.

     Though there is no way to definitively discern how, or when, or even if the United States will start censoring our internet, in general, we, as a student body, agree that there needs to be a delicate balance between internet anarchy and the infringement of our rights online; a new concept, in this newly developed, entirely connected society.