Internet has been hailed as the next industrial revolution because of the way it has revolutionized knowledge and information sharing. Internet has been such a powerful force that it has been embraced as a major weapon to spread democratic and free speech ideals around the world. No wonder it has contributed tremendously towards the recent toppling of dictator regimes in the Middle East.
The fact that internet enables easy access to information and knowledge as well as free speech is the argument put forth by those who believe that content censorship should be strictly limited to actual specific threats of violence and obscene material. Such debaters may argue that more liberal censorship standards that also cover hate speech, pornography, lewd material, and sex chat rooms etc. defeat the very purpose for which the internet was created. They may also argue that free speech and cultural values are totally different things and free speech also covers ideas, values, and beliefs that may not be deemed appropriate by the society.
But such critics fail to understand that there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. Europe and the U.S. pride themselves in being the global benchmark when it comes to freedom of speech yet one can be prosecuted in Europe for promoting Nazi ideology and in the U.S. for denying Holocaust. Similarly, even in strong democracies like the U.S., racist remarks could have legal, social, and professional implications.
One cannot legally drink before the age of at least sixteen in Europe and eighteen in the U.S., and similarly, sex with underage individuals is considered a crime even if voluntary. Certain drugs such as opium and cocaine etc. are also illegal. One may argue that restricting use of these specific drugs or not allowing underage drinking constitutes violation of individual rights to freedom of action but society has an obligation to advance the overall welfare of everyone at the expense of few. This is why drugs are prohibited because the cost to the society is more than the apparent benefits gained by few. In addition, young people are not mature enough to make informed and logical decisions which is why society has to take their vulnerabilities into account and protect them from harm’s way including under-18 sexual activity and underage drinking. In addition, internet allows anonymity and it is very difficult to figure out the identity of strangers who may be sexual predators trying to target vulnerable children.
Internet may be a revolutionary technology but it has similarities to other channels of communication, information, knowledge, and entertainment such as print and electronic media. There is no reason why internet should not be governed by the laws that apply to other media. TV channels and radio channels do not telecast adult programs before late night so as to minimize exposure to under-age population. Similarly, print media with adult content take steps to ensure their content is only accessible to those of legal age. But internet has complicated the situation since internet is accessible round-the-clock. Thus, it makes sense to restrict pornography, lewd material, and adult content.
We all become mature and responsible with age. This is why certain laws put age-specific limits or outright prohibit certain behavior. The purpose in most cases is to advance the overall welfare of the society and restricting hateful speech and adult material on the internet will contribute towards the purpose.