Beware unintended harm of regulating Internet

Sunday, November 14, 2010

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 I-Pads,
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

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

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

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

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: