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E-Speech: The (Uncertain) Future of Free Expression

Posted on Oct 28, 2008
constitution in cyberspace
Composite: Flickr: oneras/free tibet

By Aram Sinnreich and Masha Zager

Imagine this: It’s the day before your daughter’s birthday. She lives in another state, so you make a video of the rest of the family singing “Happy Birthday to You” on your camcorder and put the videotape in a box with her address on it. But at the post office, you’re told the box will take two weeks to deliver unless you pay your daughter’s local mail carrier an extra delivery fee.

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So instead, you write her a letter describing the video and including the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You.” She never receives the letter; unbeknownst to you, the post office has opened it en route, and, seeing that you’ve enclosed copyrighted materials (yes, the “Happy Birthday” song is copyrighted), has decided not to deliver the envelope to her. You write her another letter, without the song lyrics, and although it arrives on her doorstep intact, she can’t open it because you used a large manila envelope and her electric letter opener works only on size A2, A6 and A7 envelopes.

You decide to fly out and deliver your birthday wishes in person. After the usual hour-long wait at the airport, you reach the metal detector. A TSA officer asks you to come to a private room, where you are searched and questioned, and left waiting for six hours. The airport security officers repeatedly ask you about your plans for a future visit to China, which is strange, because you mentioned these plans only once, during a private conversation with a friend.

Finally you are allowed to board a plane, and a few hours later your daughter meets you when you land. You give her a big hug and try to sing “Happy Birthday.” However, when you open your mouth, no sound comes out. You can speak perfectly well, but for some reason you are unable to sing.

If this scenario sounds absurd, that’s because it is. If it sounds unrealistic, that’s because you haven’t been paying attention. Although no one is slowing down or opening your posted letters, spying on your face-to-face conversations or restricting your physical ability to make music, all of these barriers to free speech—and more—are becoming increasingly prevalent in the world of digital communications. And as tools like the Web, e-mail, voice over IP, Internet video, mobile phones and peer-to-peer file sharing become increasingly vital to our relationships with family, friends, colleagues, businesses and government institutions, these limitations on speech and threats to our privacy are becoming increasingly important civil rights issues.


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When we talk about unequal access to computers and other digital communication technologies, we speak about the “digital divide.” When we talk about the concentrated ownership of the Internet access business, we can point to a simple, powerful statistic: Four companies control nearly 60 percent of the American ISP market, and four companies control nearly 90 percent of the American mobile phone market. But there’s no simple way to talk about the interrelated issues of electronic surveillance, network neutrality, asymmetry and “walled garden” technologies that collectively threaten free expression in the digital world.

Without a name for the big picture, it’s difficult to do anything about it. Imagine trying to reverse global warming, reduce pollution and save species from extinction without the umbrella of the word environmentalism connecting the issues. Therefore, we propose the term e-speech as a concept to unite these issues, and to discuss potential solutions to the problem they collectively pose. First, however, we should briefly discuss the issues themselves.

Most of us have read about the surveillance of our phone conversations, and the recent amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) retroactively granting immunity to companies like AT&T and Verizon for illegally handing our private information over to the federal government. However, fewer people are aware of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which the government has used to obtain access to Web-based e-mail without getting a warrant or notifying the account holder.

Similarly, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), an international treaty currently under negotiation, may allow customs officials to search our computers, MP3 players and other electronic devices for unpermissioned content when we travel, and may force ISPs to disclose more information about our online activities to copyright owners claiming infringement. ACTA negotiations have been held in secret, and what little we know is the result of leaks. Despite not telling us much about it, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) says it is trying to “complete the new agreement as quickly as possible.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge recently filed suit against the USTR, demanding more information about ACTA before it’s actually ratified.

Another potential threat to civil liberties online is the end of network neutrality, or nondiscriminatory delivery of online communications. Some ISPs have begun to argue that they should be allowed to collect an extra fee from the application provider for delivering an e-mail, Web page or video to an end user. Former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre summed up their justification well, arguing that “for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!” However, this argument doesn’t hold much water when you consider that both the originator and the end user are paying for their Internet access; in essence, the ISPs would like to get paid by three separate parties to deliver a single e-mail or voice message from point A to point B.

In reality, the purpose of such fees would be to protect ISPs’ video services from competition by Internet-based video (such as YouTube), and ISPs’ phone services from competition by Internet-based VoIP (such as Skype). And for any Internet communications that did take place, major publishers and advertisers could outbid the rest of us, consigning us to the slow lane. In the short term, this could make Web-based services like audio/video chatting and video sharing more expensive. In the longer term, it could bring an end to the proliferation of new voices and creative new services that we’ve gotten used to seeing on the Web.

There is no legislation supporting or rejecting net neutrality (this may change soon; several bills have been introduced on both sides); however, net neutrality currently stands as Federal Communications Commission policy. Even so, there are many cases in which Internet providers have apparently broken the rules. Most famously, Comcast, the nation’s second-largest ISP, was caught throttling bandwidth for customers who used the BitTorrent file sharing protocol. Although the FCC ruled that the company had to stop, Comcast has appealed the decision. In the meantime, Comcast has amended its broadband user policy, capping monthly usage at 250 gigabytes (not much for fans of digital video).

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By Colorado Marketing Companies, August 1, 2011 at 6:06 pm Link to this comment

Well dramatized, and a good way to make clear the threats ahead, especially as our copyright laws are now being effectively written by copyright holding corporations. Few people take the time to consider the far-reaching implications of the steady chipping away of speech rights on the internet and I fear that by the time enough people do realize what has happened we will no longer have the rights to do anything about it.

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By M.Hostetler, June 28, 2011 at 9:45 pm Link to this comment

We just have to look at the big picture and be thankful that netizens are allowed to voice their views across so many platforms which can be instantaneously viewed by others from around the world. A country may impose curfews, restrict publications of certain editorials but as long as one still have access to the internet via these platforms, free expressions will continue to exist in our lives. One can even call this the final stand in Free Expression.

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By Mbadger, August 19, 2009 at 6:25 am Link to this comment

The creation of the internet and new age methods of usability such as mobile broadband and Iphones will ensure that freedom of speech and civil liberties will continue to exist. Just take a look at the recent iranian elections, mobile phones, twitter and internet access allowed people to connect to each other, expose harsh governmental tactics and show the world what’s really happening.

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By Folktruther, October 31, 2008 at 9:38 am Link to this comment

Free Expression is one of the major power delusions of American ideology.  It supposedly exists because it and Free Speeeh, etc is written down on legal pieces of paper somewhere. And is enshrined in the US Constitution in a paranthetical phrase.

Free Expression in the US is and has always been historically,  a political fraud.  The learned and mass media are largely owned or in other ways controlled by the American power structure which formulates the mainstream truth from the perspective of power rather than from perspective of the population.

Simple holistic truths about people and power are ideologically repressed in the mainstream media, largely being de-emphasized to the point of exclusion.  The American people are deluded by false media truths that are incompatible with the reality based truth.  This creates a mainstream consensus which ideological represses deviant truths, especially those which subvert power.

Freedom of communication is possible not only when one can TELL the truth, but when one can SELL the truth.  Telling the reality based truth about people and power is useless if no one is listening, or if they can’t hear.  Or if they do not possess the conceptual language to understand what is being said.

So under the Bushite political conterrevolution the US power system has devised Freedom Zones, away from the population, where protesters can tell their truths.  And Freedom Cages where protestors are comfined to enjoy Freedom of Expression.

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By George, October 30, 2008 at 9:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Congrats to the authors. This is one of the best explanations I’ve read on the issue of net neutrality and thank you for mentioning our service COPOWI.

When we first launched last year it became really clear that it would be almost impossible for us to break outside what we call “the believers”. These are people who clearly understand the problem and are prepared to act.

Just dealing with the term “net neutrality” was a nightmare from a marketing and promotional standpoint.

It was while we were developing new promotional ideas that the economic crisis struck. At first our reaction, like everyone, was utter shock and disbelief.

But then, on reflection, this was something we as a group have been discussing and predicting for some time. The global economic system, predicated on perpetual asset growth, was simply unsustainable.

A new economic, political and social system is being built right now and, as usual, we as the people, have no say.

It was then we realized why we have been fighting so hard to keep the Internet open and fair. We now have an opportunity to mobilize, on a global scale, to ensure what develops is not just for the elites, but for all of us.

Please read our free report: Preventing the Depression: Learn the truth about what is behind the economic crisis and why we cannot rely on politicians and business leaders to decide our future and the future of our children.

You can download the report from

We’re at prelaunch at the moment and all input would be most appreciated.

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By cyrena, October 30, 2008 at 5:24 pm Link to this comment

Tricia writes:
•  “A politician may well accept donations from corporations for aiding them in the achievement of their objectives, but the politician has no value if unelected. That is where the true power lies… in the hands of the elector - people like you”… “Distancing oneself from the political process is to invite anarchy, which inevitably places one in the wrong and encourages even more curtailment of civil rights.”

And, I thank her. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to articulate, successfully or not.

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By eileen fleming, October 29, 2008 at 6:46 am Link to this comment

The Industrial Military Media Security/Surveillance Complex:

Naomi Klein, in her book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” wrote:

After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Israel’s economy was devastated, but then came 9/11, and “suddenly new profit vistas opened up for any company that claimed it could spot terrorists in crowds, seal borders from attack and extract confessions from closed-mouthed prisoners.

“Many of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs are using Israel’s status as a fortressed state, surrounded by furious enemies, as a kind of twenty-four-hour-a-day showroom—a living example of how to enjoy relative safety amid constant war.

“Israel now sends $1.2 billion in “defense” products to the United States—up dramatically from $270 million in 1999…

“Much of this growth has been in the so-called ‘homeland security sector. Before 9/11 homeland security barely existed as an industry. By the end of this year, Israeli exports in the sector will reach $1.2 billion—an increase of 20 percent.

“The key products and services are …precisely the tools and technologies Israel has used to lock in the occupied territories. Israel has learned to turn endless war into a brand asset, pitching its uprooting, occupation and containment of the Palestinian people as a half-century head start in the “global war on terror.”

In totalitarian regimes the people are afraid of the government.

In healthy democracies the government is afraid of the people.

We have no freedom or liberties, unless we seize them.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” UN Universal declaration of Human Rights, Article 19.

Eileen Fleming, Citizen Journalist and Founder WAWA:
Author “Keep Hope Alive” and “Memoirs of a Nice Irish American ‘Girl’s’ Life in Occupied Territory”
Producer “30 Minutes With Vanunu” and “13 Minutes with Vanunu”

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By Purple Girl, October 29, 2008 at 6:30 am Link to this comment

Why don’t we start from the beginning and hit these corps on Infringement Rights, Piracy and technological Espionage?
Frankly the Claim the Corps have a right to charge US for anything they have POACHED is ridiculous.They Stole His invention, His intented Gift to Humanity.
Granted the set up is not part of the ‘Gift’ so they can charge for their work to get you connected- physically…But should never been given the right to charge US to accesss it.
The survaillence for securtiy issue is even more outrageous.Whether would be ‘terrorist’ communicate over the iternet, the phone or face to face, they are determined to pull their attack off. Really, if you are hell bent on murdering someone, you’ll do it with a gun, a knife,poison,strangulation….The tool used is Mute, Irrelevant. Thus stopping Terrorism by cruising the internet is Useless! If we are not going to Hotwire all Individuals up to Survaillenace Tech to monitor their thoughts,words and actions the rest is Feudal.
The resent apprehension of the Neo Nazi’s proves this..They didn’t catch them from internet communications (only discovered afterwards) They were Caught Holding up a Gun Store!
We couldn’t also stop the Virginia Tech mass murderer, they only found out his plans after the fact….couldn’t read his mind.
The Reich claims an ‘increase in Chatter’ as evidence of a potential attack, unfortunately they can’t truely decipher what is being communicated, so they still have no way of Preventing It. If they type or say XYZ we have no idea if that is a code word or not.So their premise they are working off is innately flawed, no matter what they can’t read minds nor even real code words if related face to face to begin with.
Only dumbass with no real ability to pull off anything communicate via E-mail, not those who have spent years and funds on a Big ‘project’ would Willy nilly discuss it on the open Wire.
Shit the FBI couldn’t even catch the Teflon Don until his top hit man rolled, and they had they SOB Wired to the Hilt, And HE KNEW IT,so he adjusted his communications. ONLY through a face to face with a ‘trusted’ insider did they Catch him not using his code.
So to catch ‘Terrorist’ , Just like the Mafia, you must infiltrate and record Face to face ‘secure’ communications.And OUR Gov’t KNOWS this!They are instituting Big Brother under the Guise of natioanl security.
So while they monitor me because I want Cheney’s Head on aRecylced Paper plate, They are missing the guys at the coffee shop gearing up for their ‘Grand finale’.

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By 911truthdotorg, October 28, 2008 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment

Not only are we losing our free speech, but we’re going to have to hand over our VERY personal information to the Gestapo starting in Jan if we want to fly. And if you don’t hand it over, they’ll PUT you on the no-fly list! This is OUTRAGEOUS! This country is DONE!

-DHS to Take Over Airline Passenger Screening

Starting in January, the responsibility for checking airline travelers’names against the passenger watch and no-fly lists will pass from the airlines to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Passengers will be required to provide their full names, birthdates and genders to board commercial aircraft.  The additional required information is intended to reduce significantly the number of false positives, or people whose travel is “wrongly” delayed or prevented.  The no-fly list has fewer than 2,500 names on it; just 10 percent of those are US citizens.  The selectee list, which identifies people who are subject to additional questioning, contains fewer than 16,000 names, and less than half are US citizens.  The shift comes with the release of the Secure Flight Final Rule.

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By trisha, October 28, 2008 at 8:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why is it becoming the normal practice to come up with a workaround when government and corporations fail us? To follow this philosophy is to admit defeat; to decide that our representatives and form of government have become the enemy. A politician may well accept donations from corporations for aiding them in the achievement of their objectives, but the politician has no value if unelected. That is where the true power lies… in the hands of the elector - people like you… The recent revolt over the bailout plan was effective, for a while, but poorly organized. Instead of telling people how to get around the mischief of the government, try telling them how to find out more, explain the legislation (when and if it is planned) and what they can legally do to thwart it.

Distancing oneself from the political process is to invite anarchy, which inevitably places one in the wrong and encourages even more curtailment of civil rights.

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By Big B, October 28, 2008 at 5:40 pm Link to this comment

As a former “comcaster” I can assure people that comcast’s stand against net neutrality is less sinister in nature, and more profit related. Since comcast doesn’t posses the cash cow that is a wireless network(ala verizon and AT&T;) they are forced to try and create new revenue streams through their existing service platforms, like preventing other ISP’s from their systems, and charging downloaders through the nose for “extra” data.

The other more recent problem with the information superhighway infrastructure is that, during tough economic times, major system upgrades, be they fiber or WIFI, may get back burnered because of costs alone.(Verizon and AT&T;have deep pockets, but can they afford 15-20 billion dollar system upgrades during a recession?) They may not feel completion of these projects that urgently anyway because competition from the large Cable operators is limited because of their aging coaxial/fiber hybrid systems that depend primarily on digital compression to make up for a lack of bandwidth. And with no wireless revenue stream, they will be hard pressed to compete with the baby bells anyway, because they don’t have their deep pockets or credit ratings.

As for net security, well, hopefully no one out there in TV land is under the impression that the feds have not been creating a huge data base from internet activity going all the way back to the 90’s.

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By libertarian, October 28, 2008 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A good, detailed, important article on a subject of which most are unaware. My two simplistic remedies are : term-limits for Congress (no agenda snowballing) and the purchase of a monthly SSH/SSL offshore server account which will protect both your privacy and anonymity.

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By TheRealFish, October 28, 2008 at 3:09 pm Link to this comment

Though listed as a writer of science fiction, for those who haven’t been exposed to him before, I’d like to introduce Cory Doctorow.

More than just an author, he is an expert in the world of Internet security and is a strongly in favor of keeping the Internet lanes free.

He wrote a recent book, titled “Little Brother” that he allows folks to download *for free*—having to do with issues of loss of privacy and freedoms in today’s world. The setting of the story is something like day-after-tomorrow.

You can get it here (a must read):

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