Saturday, April 22, 2006

Free speech & the Internet... What's the fuss?

What exactly constitutes a violation of free speech online? Consider two recent, and very different cases. In one, a group of college students from Harvard, MIT, Swarthmore, and others posted damaging internal documents about Diebold online. Diebold, if you remember, is the company whose electronic polling systems caused such a panic among voters' rights groups - the machines that incorrectly tallied votes in Cleveland, OH among other places. In the article from, Paul Roberts, a correspondent from IDG news service, discusses the students' actions:

"One of those who set up a mirror site was C. Scott Ananian, a graduate student in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of three students to mirror the Diebold document's on the institute's network. After downloading the documents from Why War?'s Web site, Ananian posted links to copies of the documents on his work computer on October 27, making the documents accessible through MIT's connection to the Internet.

Prior to posting the documents, Ananian followed reports about security flaws in Diebold systems, including a July report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University about software flaws in Diebold's AccuVote-TS voting terminal." [read the full article here]

In another case, the EFF started up its propaganda machine, whining about AOL censoring its members for circulating a petition concerning the "E-mail tax" that it is considering. This so-called "tax" is really a fee that AOL is charging legitimate companies who don't want their e-mail deleted as spam. Such companies would get lead billing in AOL users' e-mail inboxes, above non-paid messages from AOL members' e-mail lists. [read the full article here]

Which one is "censorship?" Both companies are protecting their fiscal interests: Diebold has a vested stake in online polling; AOL stands to make buckets of money by charging companies to deliver e-mail past its vaunted "Spam blocker." Both companies are attempting to quash those who stand in their respective paths to additional fortune. Both companies are enraging online free speech activists, many of whom don't understand the nature of rhetoricized speech, that which our founders were protecting. Which case deserves outrage, and which one is just a pointless gesture?

In all honesty, the Diebold case is that which should be a matter of concern. In this case, voting citizens were publicizing a legitimate, documentable concern about the accuracy of voting in the United States. Although their methods were unorthodox, their actions fall well within the purview of the First Amendment: they were engaged in journalistic activity that served the public interest, raising concerns about fellow citizens' loss through inaccuracy of voting rights. The so-called "copyright infringement" that Diebold is using against the students, a part of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, is a smokescreen. Students were not using copywritten material, such as the Diebold operating software code, to make a profit or cause a loss of profit for personal gain; rather, they were publishing internal documents obtained by unorthodox measures (similar to means that journalists use all the time, but a little more technological) for the purpose of informing the public. Again, a journalistic act that is protected by the First Amendment.

The AOL article is not cause for concern. AOL customers are not publicizing an issue of public concern, instead, they are complaining about the practices of a corporate entity that they voluntarily pay to provide a selective internet service. AOL is not a standard ISP: AOL is a corporate entity that provides an online forum with select options available to members, among which is restricted use of the Internet. AOL users, when they sign up, must agree to the Terms of Service, within which it clearly states that: "You may not use the AOL Network in any manner that could damage, disable, overburden, or impair our servers or networks, or interfere with any other party's use and enjoyment of the AOL Network. You may not attempt to gain unauthorized access to any services, user accounts, computer systems or networks, through hacking, password mining or any other means. We may take any legal and technical remedies to prevent the violation of this provision and to enforce these Terms of Service."

The actions by the AOL members were in violation of the TOS - AOL feels that certain members would benefit from selective paid e-mail advertisements; therefore, anyone interfering with this can be shut down: "We may take any ... technical remedies to prevent the violation of this provision[.]" Is it a crappy thing to do? Yes it is; however, AOL users may, at any time, terminate their AOL accounts and sign up for another service, one less restrictive. AOL served a valuable purpose in the early days of the Internet: people who were not technologically savvy could go "online" easily, with AOL software doing all the hard work. Most DSL or Cable Internet services cost the same as (or less than) AOL, and these ISPs will gladly come to your home and set up your computer to use their services.

Users worried about "e-mail taxes" will always be able to find an e-mail account that does not send commercial e-mail for a fee. Jettison AOL, and your problem goes away. The critical difference is in rights: people have the right to vote. People pay for the privilege of Internet use. You can take your money elsewhere for an ISP. You can't take your vote elsewhere without giving up your citizenship. I'm now officially tired of this, and I'm going to bed.
currently on miPod - "Way Out Basie" - Count Basie

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