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Beware unintended harm of regulating Internet

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Gene Policinski
November 10, 2011

Do you recall that ironic twist on an old saying that goes like this: “No good deed goes unpunished?” In its broadest sense, that adage recognizes the reality that bad things can result from even the most well-intentioned actions and ideas.


Case in point: The laudable ongoing efforts to balance freedom of expression online with protection from sexual predators and others who pose harm to children, in the United States and around the world.


The just-concluded annual conference of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) in Washington, D.C., gave voice to concerns that well-intended regulations and technological devices that impose limits or controls on child abuse may be used by some governments to suppress other kinds of free speech—such as political opposition to the parties in power.


Warned Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy and Technology, “Governments are trying to assert control over the Internet for reasons valid or not.”


There were discussions about invasion-of-privacy threats from new technologies that are, as one speaker termed them, the proverbial two-edged sword. One example: geo-tracking abilities available on mobile phones or iPads, which can empower parents to follow their children, in real time, as they travel or drive. But, one expert warned, tracking can also allow a repressive government to pinpoint the location of a protester or political demonstrators.


And at least one speaker warned against unintended harm from legal efforts to thwart “sexting”—a practice that has made headlines when teens have sent nude or nearly nude images, sometimes of themselves, via mobile phones. In some cases, she said, the teens, not thinking of or even aware of the potential consequences, face felony charges of distributing child pornography or soliciting prostitution, and lifelong registry as sex offenders, for sending images of themselves.


Not that long ago, FOSI’s annual meeting was a place for basic discussion of the online dangers to teens and younger children, of needed changes in policies, practices and technology to deal with those who prowl the Web with evil intentions.


FOSI’s supporters have consistently considered the impact of new regulations on freedom of expression. Yet more than ever, for me, this year’s meeting raised concerns about limits that could become too strict, and about the real threats of misuse of an increasingly pervasive Internet to harm freedom.


Some of those attending raised questions about applying a single legal or ethical approach to the global Internet, given that religious and social differences abound on what constitutes appropriate, acceptable or illegal online content and contacts for children. What’s desirable to a majority in the United States or Europe may well not be to those in other nations, some said.


Still, others including Alan Davidson, Google’s director of public policy in North and South America, said those concerned with both safety and free expression online should keep in mind that “we should not be apologetic of freedom.”


Davidson said Google—which has withdrawn from China because of government insistence that the online search engine company censor results that officials there deem unacceptable—has “a general belief that more information is good.”


In the end, the FOSI conference was an excellent reminder: The First Amendment guarantees of free expression and freedom to worship that we treasure in this nation provide opportunity to all—but seem a threat to some—in a global environment like the World Wide Web.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. Email: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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