Now, with almost everything digitized, new communication technologies have led to a global proliferation of censorship agents, methods, and rationales. Ironically for the American pioneers who expected the Internet to foster unprecedented information freedom, its rapid and ubiquitous adoption has created a flexible and effective mechanism for thought control.
Governments love and fear the Internet. It's a cheap agent of economic growth, but it also delivers disturbing and subversive ideas at very low cost.
Since the Internet and the tools that make it useful are mostly in corporate hands, digital censorship relies on the private sector.
...so far, profit from the global information economy has trumped principles of information freedom.
Copyright law is the new frontier of censorship.
In response to panic in the recording industry about music file sharing, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998. The DMCA seems to have made hardly a dent in the sharing of songs and movies, but it has justified a nasty war between recording studios and the teenagers on whom the industry depends. Other parties are being dragged into the fight. The recording and motion-picture industries are pressuring colleges to screen everything that flows over their campus networks in order to stop the unauthorized delivery of copyrighted songs and movies to students' rooms.
No one advocates breaking the law, but such screening is inconsistent with academic principles of open communication. Suppose some students were acquiring unauthorized photocopies of textbooks. Would any university respond by opening and inspecting every parcel delivered to a student's room? And yet such pre-emptive antipiracy measures have become plausible, even on a grand scale.
U.S. copyright law is such a heavy club that it can abet censorship by parties that simply object to what people are saying about them. Under the DMCA, if Alice posts a video on YouTube and Bob claims that it infringes his copyright, he can issue a takedown notice demanding that YouTube remove the video. YouTube need not comply with Bob's demand, but if it does, it will enjoy a safe harbor from subsequent liability. Alice can lodge a counterclaim, but YouTube has to wait 10 business days before restoring the material, to give Bob the opportunity to take Alice to court.
That regime sounds balanced but isn't. It provides immediate satisfaction for Bob and a substantial delay for Alice. If Bob and Alice are unequal parties — Bob is a studio and Alice an independent artist, for example — hiring lawyers is likely to be routine for Bob and a burden on Alice. If Bob demands that Alice's material be pulled, Alice, whatever the merits of her case, may prefer to avoid a legal snarl.
Ironically, even the McCain-Palin campaign, which explicitly promised to "crack down on piracy," fell victim to the DMCA's censorial abuse. The campaign complained to YouTube that its videos and advertisements had repeatedly "been the subject of DMCA takedown notices regarding uses that are clearly privileged under the fair-use doctrine," which allows noncommercial use of small amounts of copyrighted material for purposes of discussion and critique. (For example, CBS objected to a McCain ad that contained a short clip from Katie Couric's news show.) McCain's attorney argued that two weeks is an eternity during a political campaign, and that the takedown process might chill political discourse. YouTube not unreasonably responded that it couldn't sort out disputes between disagreeing parties but would look forward to working with either President or Senator McCain to improve the law.
The Internet is, for the most part, privately owned. So is the publishing business, where the free market has always worked. If a publisher doesn't want my book, I can take my business elsewhere, but I can't cry censorship. We wouldn't want government regulation of book publishers, and we don't need it.
The Internet is different from publishing, in fact if not in theory. Were one publisher as dominant as Google or YouTube, its corporate judgments might have a very big impact on the free flow of ideas.
And the DMCA protocol presents opportunities for the powerful to suppress speech by spurious invocation of copyright law. In the United States, the Internet is still the "most participatory form of mass speech yet developed," as a federal judge, Stewart R. Dalzell, wrote in overturning an early Internet-censorship law. For the Internet to remain so, more legislation will be needed to guarantee its openness.