Sensitive about censorship

Free speech on the internet gets the youth vote (almost).

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

Free speech online is under threat, not only from state regulation, but also from self-regulation. The majority of items removed from the internet in the UK are removed according to the dictates of the internet industry, not the courts.

As a one-time teenage free speech crusader, invited to give a talk on internet regulation to a prestigious independent London girls’ school, I was intrigued to see what these students would make of the issue.

Back when I was in the school debating team, my belief in free speech was anarchic and self-interested. I was young, authority sucked, and how dare the government/police/fat cats dictate to me what horror movies/porn mags/gangsta rap I could watch/read/listen to? Down with them! By the time I reached university, I was more nuanced: free speech was a cornerstone of democracy, it was essential to free and open debate, and free speech for those whose opinions you liked the least was a necessity because it guaranteed a standard of free speech for all.

Like my younger self, most of my lower-sixth audience came across as believers in the principle of free speech. Asked to list the reasons why material can be banned or regulated, they grumbled through obscenity, incitement to violence and national security, among others. What patronising reasons to ban things!

When we addressed the internet more specifically, self-regulation reared its ugly head. We looked at the recent court case in which the portal and search directory Yahoo! was sued by two French organisations for hosting auctions of Nazi memorabilia. I pointed out that Yahoo! eventually decided to outlaw Nazi memorabilia from its US website of its own accord, even though it was still challenging the claims of the French prosecution (1).

Should Yahoo! have done this, I asked? ‘No!’, replied my robust students. If people want to buy and sell that kind of offensive rubbish on the internet, then it should be their own business, not that of Yahoo!.

Heartened by their spirit, I moved on to discuss the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) (2), the unaccountable organisation responsible for the vast majority of removals of items from the internet in the UK. According to some accounts, the powers of this non-governmental organisation outstrip those of the British state 400-fold (3).

The decision to ban most of the items removed in the UK never sees judge nor jury, let alone face the court of popular opinion. The internet service providers (ISPs), who obey the orders of the IWF to remove offending items, are under no obligation to do so – the IWF has no state powers – but the ISPs, wishing to appear responsible, obey these orders anyway.

Is this right, I asked? And there was an awkward silence.

‘Well it’s probably more effective’, piped up one voice. ‘Self-regulation seems to be the only answer’, agreed another. ‘If an internet service provider wants to remove something, that’s its own business’, came a third.

Students still get riled by the evils of censorship – but as long as it isn’t the authorities doing the censoring, it seems that they can live with it.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Defending the indefensible online, by Sandy Starr

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) For a commentary on this court case, see Two cheers for Yahoo!, by Sandy Starr

(2) See the Internet Watch Foundation website

(3) See ‘Oppression net’ by Chris Ellison, Economic Affairs, March 2000. Click
to download a copy of this article in .pdf format

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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