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Society, Politics & Law

Freedom on the internet

Updated Sunday, 30th September 2001

The Open Minds programme explores freedom on the internet.

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John Carr - internet consultant Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team John Carr Bill Thompson Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team Bill Thompson
Blamed for terrorist violence and hailed as the biggest communication revolution since the printing press, the Internet is as feared as it is adored. Open Minds asks whether it should be preserved as an utopia for free speech or gagged to protect society?

John Carr explains that the difficulties lie in the fact that there's never been anything like the Internet before. There are now 163 million people with email addresses which give them the potential for almost instantaneous communication with each other. It is estimated that within eighteen months the numbers will exceed 300 million. We are at the point that we can foresee a time when the whole of the world could eventually be in instant communication with each other.

Bill Thompson suggests that everybody feels threatened by the Internet in some way because it's so new, growing so fast and it offers a whole new way to communicate. Big media organisations that currently dominate radio, television and newspapers feel directly threatened as it is a market and medium they don't understand, don't know how to make money out of or how to manage it. National governments, both liberal and authoritarian, are also worried as they are used to being able to control the flow of information and can't do that very effectively when people are online. The Internet provides a new way for people to reach each other and share information.

John Carr agrees. Physical controls in the real world help prevent things like pornography becoming too intrusive. The Internet removes these physical barriers and makes a whole new set of things possible. Analogies between the real world and the virtual world don't work as we really are facing a paradigm shift. We need to think about the Internet in new ways and about the consequences of the Internet in new ways.

As far as regulation is concerned, John would welcome the technical capability for us to control what comes on our own screens in our own homes or offices. Parents should be able to make real decisions about what children can access, in the same way they can about videos and cinemas now. Every screen should be an allotted screen – no child should be able, simply through their own inquisitiveness, get into situations they can't handle.

Bill suggests that, while no-one could argue with desire to protect children online and the importance of boundaries, there are issues over how to do that and what appropriate technical and political solutions we implement. The core requirement should be to preserve the Internet as a medium in which people can communicate freely whilst still protecting the rights of children and other vulnerable people, and the technology available today doesn't meet that requirement.

By way of illustration, John demonstrates the screening software available through most Internet browsers, such as Internet Explorer and Netscape. This software is free with the browser, is password protected and allows users to filter material for levels of language, nudity, sex and violence. However, this software is still fairly crude and designed in America, so is not really tailored for the British or European markets.

Bill Thompson argues that they work well for what they do, but young children can get around them. For example, there is nothing to stop children downloading a new browser and accessing anything. There are also problems with the ratings systems themselves, as voiced by groups such as Peacefire. Too often these programs are blocking material that is not offensive but annoys the people who make the blocking software and limits users' experience of the Internet. For example, you may want your children to see stuff about contraception, but it may be blocked to you without your knowing it.

On the issue of maintaining our freedom, John Carr suggests that, although Western democracy may be built on the idea of free speech, but we still have limits which restrict, for example, incitement to racial hatred and the display of hard core pornography. We don't have to accept that these rules can't be applied on the Internet. While John has a lot of faith in liberal democracies, absolute freedom doesn't currently exists anywhere in the world and he doesn't see why we should give free range to criminals and pornographers by trying to make the Internet free from society's rules.

Bill is however very dubious about the idea that our liberal democracies will ensure that we get the right kind of Internet regulation. He agrees that protecting children and those that are vulnerable needs to be done, but is not convinced that that we have any idea yet how to do this. He is concerned that we will invent technologies that get in the way of the direction of the Internet and don't achieve their primary objective. A complete free-for-all would be a disaster, but we should be very careful about how we tackle the issue.

Take it further

BBC WebWise

Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties (UK)

Institute for Jewish Policy Research (paper on racism on the internet)

Save the internet

Peacefire – Youth Alliance against Internet Censorship





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