|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 pubic issue forum held at the public library in Republic, MO.
Forum attendees each presented personal stories dealing with crime or fraud 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 personal experience, the central focus became where does one draw the line on what is allowed. By the end of the two-hour deliberation, the group basicly concluded that the Internet needs to be treated like a public square and the behavior and content online needs to be regulated accordingly.
Top concerns regarding the Internet included its use to perpetrate fraud and other crimes and in sharing of private information and records, the exposure of children to sexual content, and its role in fostering 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.
Adults worried about the impact of Internet pornography on children--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 online).
Privacy and hate
People’s concern over the need for privacy protection online is an emerging national issue, but at this forum 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 hate sites, partly because participants said these sites were protected by the First Amendment and partly because they did not see them as presenting a danger.
What was the group concensus?
- 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 online as long as they did not incite violence.
- 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 online and accessible but only by health care workers and not by insurers or employers. However, in terms of privacy, participants left the forums frustrated and concerned.
This particular group discussion was guided by a booklet entitled, Protecting Our Rights: What Goes on the Internet? available online. The forum was sponsored by the Greene County Extension Center of Springfield.