For Americans, freedom of speech has always been among our most cherished freedoms. Why? Because free speech and a free press provide a guardrail for all of our other freedoms. Free speech keeps us informed and connected, and it lets us hold our government accountable. Our commitment to free speech is the envy and example of the world. Yet, each generation faces a renewed struggle to preserve that freedom. Today, we’re seeing that struggle, especially in our government’s attempts to censor the Internet.
The regulatory threats to Internet freedom in America are getting more serious. True, Congress finally shelved two highly controversial bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, in 2012. More recently, Congress dropped the Cyber Information Sharing and Protection Act. Yet, already they are starting to work on similar legislation. The main intention behind each of these bills may be good — to protect against online piracy and cyberattacks — but they all give government far too much control over what can and cannot be said online, opening the door to greater restrictions. Censorship is not the way to fight piracy or protect against threats to security or privacy.
Free speech is a fundamental American right. The First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This includes speaking or writing in public or private, in books, newspapers and certainly on the Internet. We have a duty to protect and preserve this freedom for ourselves and our children. This year, my organization, the Consumer Electronics Association, is co-sponsoring Free Speech Week. This week serves as a reminder to all of us about the importance of free speech.
First Amendment protections also encourage innovation. As many innovations threaten existing business models, free speech ensures that government efforts to squelch innovation can and will be exposed by the press. Moreover, the First Amendment combined with other constitutional protections, such as due process, protect new businesses targeted by threatened old businesses.
An uncensored Internet is a critical indicator of a nation’s commitment to free speech and a tool to keep that freedom alive. Sadly, around the world there are still many nations that do not enjoy free speech, and many governments jealously censor the Internet to make sure people aren’t saying or reading anything considered dangerous or unacceptable. Unsurprisingly, North Korea, China and Iran are among the worst offenders in blocking their citizens’ access to the Internet.
Still, the problem of censoring the Internet is widespread around the world. According to a report released by the independent watchdog Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2013,” global Internet freedom has been in decline for the past three years. This isn’t just the case in nations under authoritarian governments, either. America’s rating worsened by five points this year, to 17 on a scale of zero to 100, with zero being completely free.
Keeping America’s Internet uncensored is vital to protect and perpetuate free speech. The Internet creates a platform for individuals to express themselves and say what’s on their minds. It brings people together from across the globe, allowing them to unite with like-minded individuals and to converse openly with people they may not agree with. Additionally, the Internet allows people to organize and act in defense of their freedoms and the issues they care about.
One of the most important aspects of an uncensored Internet is that it lets people hold their government accountable. Governments that don’t value freedom fear free speech, and they fiercely regulate Internet access among their citizens. These same governments have a track record of punishing — and even killing — their citizens for speaking out online. Authoritarian regimes are afraid to hear criticism, so they silence it. They also monitor content and block anything they consider offensive instead of letting people make decisions for themselves.
That kind of censorship happens in nations that are not free. It should never be allowed to happen in America. If we want to hold on to our prized tradition of free speech, we have to ensure that our Internet remains uncensored and free. We have to speak out ourselves and teach others to do the same. As we celebrate Free Speech Week, let’s remember that we have the right to free speech in America because we fought for it, and we must remain vigilant if we want to protect and keep it for future generations.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.