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New Media, New Censorship Concerns

The press will find its way online, provided free speech gets preserved

By Diana B. Henriques - December 17, 2008
I'm not among those who think some golden age will end when newspapers migrate, fully and finally, onto the Web. It will be a white-knuckled ride to get there, but ultimately great journalism will arrive safely at its new home online. However, while I'm pretty sure "the press" will flourish in some form on the Internet, I'm less certain that "freedom of the press" will do so.

Lots of things are easier on the Internet. Censorship is one of them.

All the news that's fit for government
Hackers nearly shut down the online life of Estonia in May 2007, apparently because they didn't like something its government did. Hackers with similar skills and sensibilities could easily decide, on some future day, that they don't like something one of us reported on one of our news Web sites.

Even more worrisome is the official censorship: The Chinese government has long blocked access to certain Internet locations, as reporters trying to cover the Olympics there discovered. The same techniques are used by Saudi Arabia and, according to one open-net advocacy group, dozens of other countries.

Could some future regime try to do that here -- invoking national security and the war on terrorism, perhaps, or the urgent need to protect children from the evils lurking online?

You may instinctively answer, "Of course not." I do, too. But maybe we're so confident of our future freedom because we're assuming the continued existence of some whistle-blowing newspapers that would raise the alarm the minute that kind of censorship was imposed. Newspapers may be fatally old-fashioned, but they are still the only medium that can deliver the news to the public without any government regulation at all.

A limited text plan
Magazines? Ask 'em about the potentially poisonous effects of postal rate hikes and bulk mail regulations. Television and radio stations? They're licensed outright, and can be punished and fined for any content their government regulators consider to be inappropriate. And the gloriously free Internet? It is accessible only through some regulated portal, like your obliging telephone company -- yeah, the same company that provided your phone records to the Bush administration several years ago without asking to see a warrant first.

"A.J. Liebling used to say, 'Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.' But what happens when nobody owns one anymore?"

What about text messages, an increasingly important communication medium these days? Consider the situation my colleague Adam Liptak wrote about in The New York Times in September 2007. Like many political organizations and advocacy groups, an abortion rights group wanted to use text messages to reach voters. But Verizon refused to transmit the message, claiming it had the right to censor material it deemed "controversial or unsavory."

An old-technology law prohibits "common carriers" like telephone companies from censoring what you say over the phone, Liptak explained. That law clearly prevents Verizon from pulling the plug on your phone service whenever you chat about a topic it considers "unsavory." (Otherwise there would be no phone sex, right?) But that law, which originally applied to telegrams, does not mention text messages.

That's why many legal experts believe private companies like Verizon "probably have the legal right to decide which messages to carry," Liptak warned.

The truth is that all these new-news conduits are regulated, directly or indirectly, by the government -- not just in the United States, but around the world.

Preventing Internet censorship
But newspapers are not, at least not here. And thanks to the First Amendment and a long line of "old media" court cases, it's pretty hard to shut down an American newspaper, short of putting a ring of tanks around it to intercept its delivery trucks -- which has worked in a few Latin American dictatorships in the past but which might cause a public stir here in America, even today.

Indeed, Verizon ultimately backed down on its experiment in text message censorship -- after Liptak's story ran on the front page of The New York Times. A.J. Liebling used to say, "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one." But what happens when nobody owns one anymore? Perhaps some patriotic hackers would band together to keep our news Web sites from being muzzled by threats of electronic vandalism. Perhaps Congress will someday consider how it can prevent official and unofficial Internet censorship. If it doesn't, perhaps the Supreme Court will.

But to preserve our First Amendment freedoms in cyberspace, maybe we all -- journalists and citizens -- need to start thinking and talking and lobbying about it now, while the presses are still running.

Sites that address online First Amendment rights:

  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • The Center for Democracy and Technology
  • Authors Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan
  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center

    Diana B. Henriques is a senior writer at The New York Times.

    *The essay is adapted from a speech Henriques gave accepting the New York Financial Writers Association's Elliott V. Bell Award for lifetime contributions to business journalism, on June 10, 2007, in New York City.

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