The internet is the First Amendment

An important Adam Liptak story in today’s New York Times examines the American exceptionalism of our First Amendment as contrasted with Canada’s frightening prosecution of Macleans’s magazine for daring to print opinions that complaining Muslims found offensive.

Our risk in the world today is that we will be reduced to the lowest common denominator of speech as dictated by the worst regime. Libel tourism is endangering the publication of ideas and reporting that might cost financial damages under other countries’ wrong-way libel laws. Google censors its search results in China rather than exerting its moral influence there — don’t be evil — in favor of free speech.

Except there’s this: The internet is the First Amendment brought to life. Our First Amendment argues that it is both undesirable and impossible to contain speech and the marketplace of ideas. The internet enforces that idea. You simply can’t contain speech on it. Oh, governments will try. And those who favor rule by the offended will try to make them. And companies have become accomplices to regimes’ crimes against speech by handing over speakers’ identities (see Yahoo in China and Google in India). These are, of course, the areas where anonymity has its place (the ethic of identity in these cases is protecting the identity of speakers).

So we can treat the First Amendment and the moral of speech as exceptionalism, because it has been. Or we can recognize that the internet offers the openness of speech to anyone anywhere, though not without risk, and we who have this privilege can make it our mission to educate others about the inevitability and benefits of free speech.