Thursday, July 05, 2007

Treat Internet Like a Public Square

How much privacy and freedom of speech are Americans willing to give up in order to make the Internet a safer place? That was the basic question that guided a recent public issue forum at the public library in Republic, Mo.

Forum attendees each had personal stories of crime or fraud perpetrated on the Internet and many instances of unwanted exposure to sexual content. A few knew of stories about the Internet being used for hate speech and terrorism.

“Because of that personal experience, the central focus became where you draw the line on what is allowed. By the end of our two hour deliberation, this group’s basic conclusion was that the Internet needs to be treated like a public square and the behavior and content online needs to be regulated accordingly,” said David Burton, civic communication specialist for University of Missouri Extension and moderator for the forum.


For the group in Republic, the top five concerns about the Internet included its use to perpetrate fraud, its use to commit crimes, private information and records shared via the Internet, the exposure of children to sexual content and the Internet’s role in terrorism.

“I’d be willing to give up some personal freedoms in order to protect others or limit the top four concerns about the Internet,” said one participant. “I’d be willing to give up even more if I thought it would help the police catch criminals.”

That was a sentiment shared by most participants, many of whom seemed more than happy to impose the public standards of a public square on the Internet.

“Americans are free to assemble and make speeches and do all sorts of things on a public square. But we also want the police there to catch those who commit crimes and laws to impose public standards of decency. If you feel like the rules restrict your freedom, then practice those other freedoms someplace that isn’t so public,” said another forum participant.


No doubt, people are deeply concerned about protecting children from sexually explicit material on the Internet. Adults worried about the impact of Internet pornography on children and about children getting on-line and viewing X-rated and other inappropriate material.

“The abundance of pornography on the Net is an indication of our ethical decline,” said one participant. “But I don’t think government censorship is the answer.”

In this and two previous forums on the same topic, people generally felt that whatever is permissible in print should be permitted on the Internet. So, just as child pornography cannot be sold in book stores, neither should it be on the Net.

As they deliberated, participants agreed that a First Amendment right is at risk here so the conversation began to focus more on improved software filters on the Internet to enable parents to limit what comes into the home (but not limit what is on-line).


People’s thinking about privacy protection online is an emerging national issue and that showed at the forums where this issue did not float to the top.

Early in the forum, when the issue was raised, most were not overly concerned about privacy violations, either on or off the Internet.

“Participants did not express much spontaneous concern about an array of other Internet issues, including hate sites, partly because people said they are protected by the First Amendment and partly because participants did not see them as presenting a danger,” said Burton.


Was any firm common ground for action revealed? Yes. With the exception of what is illegal in print, such as child pornography, participants did not want the government to restrict sexually explicit material on the Net.

People were not terribly concerned about hate sites, saying such sites have a right to be on-line as long as they do not incite violence.

“In terms of privacy, people left the forums frustrated and concerned,” said Burton.

Nearly everyone wanted to stop government agencies from releasing personal information. There was a nearly unanimous sense that a person's medical information should be on-line and accessible, but only by health care workers, not by insurers or employers.


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