Albion Monitor /Features
 Project Censored: 1995 Story # 4

The Privatization of the Internet

You may not have noticed, but the Internet, one of the hottest news stories of 1995, was essentially sold last year. The federal government has been gradually transferring the backbone of the U.S. portion of the global computer network to companies such as IBM and MCI as part of a larger plan to privatize cyberspace. But the crucial step was taken on April 30, when the National Science Foundation shut down its part of the Internet, which began in the 1970s as a Defense Department communications tool. And that left the corporate giants in charge.

Remarkably, this buyout of cyberspace has garnered almost no protest or media attention, in contrast to every other development in cyberspace such as the Communications Decency Act, and cyberporn. What hasn't been discussed is the public's right to free speech in cyberspace. What is obvious is that speech in cyberspace will not be free if we allow big business to control every square inch of the Net.

Given the First Amendment and the history of our past victories in fighting for freedom of expression, it should be clear how important public forums in cyberspace could be-as a way of keeping on-line debate robust and as a direct remedy for the dwindling number of free speech spaces in our physical environment.

There already are warning signs about efforts to limit on-line debate. In 1990, the Prodigy on-line service started something of a revolt among some of its members when it decided to raise rates for those sending large volumes of e-mail. When some subscribers protested, Prodigy not only read and censored their messages, but it summarily dismissed the dissenting members from the service.

There are at least three fundamental ways that speech in cyber-space already is less free than speech in a traditional public forum:

First, cyberspeech is expensive, both in terms of initial outlay for hardware and recurring on-line charges. For millions of Americans, this is no small obstacle, especially when one considers the additional cost of minimal computer literacy.

Second, speech on the Net is subject to the whim of private censors who are not accountable to the First Amendment. Commercial on-line services, such as America Online and Compuserve, like Prodigy, have their own codes of decency and monitors to enforce them.

Third, speech in cyberspace can be shut out by unwilling listeners too easily. With high-tech filters, Net users can exclude all material from a specific person or about a certain topic, enabling them to steer clear of "objectionable" views, particularly marginal political views, very easily.

If cyberspace is deprived of true public forums, we'll get a lot of what we're already used to: endless home shopping, mindless entertainment and dissent-free talk. If people can avoid the unpalatable issues that might arise in these forums, going on-line will become just another way for elites to escape the very nonvirtual realities of injustice in our world. As the "wired" life grows exponentially in the coming years, we'll all be better off if we can find that classic free speech street corner in cyberspace.

As the supreme Court said in Turner Broadcasting v. FCC (1994), "Assuring that the public has access to a multiplicity of information sources is a governmental purpose of the highest order, for it promotes values central to the First Amendment."

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SOURCE: THE NATION, 7/3/95, "Keeping On-Line Speech Free: Street Corners in Cyberspace," by Andrew L. Shapiro, pp 10-14.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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