Free Speech Technologies
By A.D. Freudenheim

8 July 2001

Despite the apparent slow down in the American and global economies, and the belief that much of the downturn relates to failures within the internet and technology business (some failures being more visible than others), the proliferation of actual content onto existing - and new - web sites continues unabated. As many people suspected all along, this suggests that the fundamental value of the internet lies in its ability to circulate information of almost any kind to almost anyone at almost any location. Alas, though, it has taken millions of investment dollars for some to recognize that the distribution of information does not always have either an economic incentive or a sound financial goal; ideology can be as powerful a motivating force as any.

The proliferation of web-based information sources raises other issues, such as questions of factuality, legitimacy, and accessibility. The ease with which internet technologies can be deployed has come to be viewed as a double-edged sword: as much as it has enabled the spread of valuable information at lightning speed, the internet has also made it easier for everyone from radical leftists to racists and neo-fascists to share information. Unlike humans, the technology does not discriminate, and the decentralized structure of the internet makes imposing controls nearly impossible.

That is a technological reality for which we should be quite thankful. In the last year the clamor for legal, state-sponsored controls has risen, again, in a variety of places. In Europe, there continue to be discussions, protests, and court cases regarding web sites which promote racist ideas. For example, last year a French court ruled that the sale of Nazi-related paraphernalia over the internet was illegal and in violation of laws against the distribution of such objects. The case, specifically involving the French mirror site for Yahoo!, a popular search, shopping, and auction network, forced the company to make changes preventing all such sales by registered users to anyone in France. Now the French are calling for their national internet service providers to ban access - on a nation-wide, all-user basis - to any web site that provides or promotes racist or anti-Semitic content.[1] The United States has not been impervious to such movements either; although little government-sponsored action has been taken, groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have at times published or promoted statistics on the dramatic proliferation of hate-oriented web sites in an effort to spur action.

So what to do? Americans and Europeans do not necessarily have differing views on the problem, but there is an important, well-enshrined distinction in our statutory solutions. The fundamental, underlying principle involved in the American Constitutional First Amendment freedom of speech is that the best way to oppose a "bad" idea is not to shut down the purveyor of the idea, but rather to use the same tools to prove them wrong. That all speech is equally free does not mean that all speech is factual, accurate, or even pleasant. Years ago, comedian George Carlin made a statement to this effect when joking about the moral rectitude that had banned certain four- and seven-letter words from the American airwaves: there are, he said, no bad words - only bad deeds. The same is true for hate-speech, which is why successful efforts to halt American racist groups have mostly involved legal attacks on their actions rather than their stated beliefs.

In contrast, most European countries do not have such an aggressively individualistic law protecting freedom of speech, which consequently permits greater state-sponsored censorship of a dubiously-beneficial nature. It seems that many Europeans remain - in the shadow of World War II - afraid of allowing certain ideas to see the light of day. This may explain why extremist political groups seem to do better in European countries - because of, and not despite, these free speech restrictions. In contrast to America, where few radical parties have achieved true national legitimacy, attempts to curb the virulent nationalism of groups like the National Front (France) or the Freedom Party (Austria), have generally backfired. The laws that force these parties into using euphemistic language probably also help to create classes of people who wink and nod at each other in agreement about their leaders' "true" intent.

In all cases - in the U.S., Europe, or anywhere else - any approach to changing the views of a given population that involves limiting their access to information is fundamentally flawed, and unlikely to be successful. Seventy years worth of intense ideological and intellectual controls could not save the Soviet Union; the Chinese are finding that outlawing a movement like Falun Gong is not driving the group out of business but only further underground (which will likely increase its allure and, hence, its strength). The fact is, reacting harshly against the internet as an "evil" technology that allows the promotion of equally devilish ideas, amounts to a confusion of technology and politics. If web sites promoting hate or selling racist propaganda or trinkets are popular, the problem surely is not just their easy availability but their allure. Clearly, the failure here is in our ability - the human ability - to teach and promote adequately the countervailing ideas of tolerance and pacifism. In the vein of, the Southern Poverty Law Center's advocacy and education web site, other groups fighting fascism, racism, or whatever other "ism," should take a lesson from the American Constitution: the best weapon against a bad idea is a better one.

[1] See search results at:
for examples of coverage.
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.