You cannot escape the internet in the present day. Although it feels like we can’t function without the internet, it hasn’t been around since the beginning. The internet was especially not a factor of concern during the time laws regarding freedom of speech and expression were made.
Dale Herbeck, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Arts, Media, and Design at Northeastern University talks about how free speech and privacy have evolved in the Internet age, and whether the laws governing them have successfully kept pace. “It’s been fascinating to watch. The Internet has stood some of our traditional thinking on its head. For example, it used to be hard for the average person to run afoul with communication law because you and I didn’t have a soapbox. Now, everyone has a blog or a Twitter handle. You can reach an audience you never had before, but one outcome of this is that it’s created the potential for the average person to defame someone,” says Herbeck.
Privacy laws were traditionally set up as a fort. We lived inside the fort and the laws were designed to protect us from government. But now on social media, people are sharing their own privacy by posting on these sites. It’s raised the stakes on issues like privacy because people assume that they’re protected. Well, it’s protected against the government, but not against the people themselves.
Herbeck also talks about a paper he’s writing, related to freedom of expression, “It’s about obscenity law in America, which is based on the contemporary community standards and essentially boils down to the fact that there is no national standard on what qualifies as obscene. Rather it’s based on what individual communities think. So, a liberal community might be tolerant of sexually explicit material, but a conservative community might not. But in the cyberworld, these kinds of physical boundaries don’t exist.”
The internet also makes a lot of illegal activity possible like illegal file sharing of copyrighted material. Every time the music or movie industry wins a copyright case and limits one form of file sharing, new technology emerges that allows users to more easily distribute song or movie files illegally. “This is an ongoing issue that the law can’t keep up with how fast technology is evolving. It can take years for issues to be resolved in court, and by then new technological advances have appeared,” says Herbeck.