Senator Lieberman calls for misguided internet censorship, but the marketplace of ideas demands that free speech flourish.

Senator Lieberman calls for misguided internet censorship, but the marketplace of ideas demands that free speech flourish.

By Kelly Dunleavy

On May 19th, Senator Joe Lieberman sent a letter to the CEO of Google, with copies to many major newspapers, demanding that Google remove videos that feature Islamic extremists, or are produced by terrorist organizations, from its video-sharing website YouTube.

Worse, Lieberman hinted that if YouTube and other websites didn’t remove such videos voluntarily, he would introduce legislation to force them to. The Senator’s demands may make for good publicity—he is rumored to be seeking John McCain’s designation as his vice-presidential running mate—but they reveal fundamental misunderstandings: about the internet and about the First Amendment.

The internet has created the ultimate marketplace of ideas. Good ideas, bad ideas, and truly horrific ideas compete more or less freely with each other. The First Amendment, which is predicated on a belief that the best ideas will win out, commands that government not interfere with this competition – no matter how tempting it may be to silence voices that are truly offensive, like those of terrorists. The technology of the internet enforces this prohibition on censorship by foiling efforts to erase objectionable content: compel the removal of a video from YouTube, and it will pop up on other websites.

Websites themselves may take down content that they don’t like. (That’s the essence of editing, after all.) Many of the most horrific videos highlighted by Senator Lieberman, including those that show American soldiers being targeted and killed by snipers, violate YouTube’s own terms of use. They prohibit, among other things, ‘gratuitous and graphic violence’, ‘bad stuff like…bomb making’ and ‘hate speech.” YouTube relies on a user-feedback system to police its site, by which people are able to flag videos that are then reviewed by administrators. In response to the Senator’s feedback, YouTube removed 80 of these videos.

Senator Lieberman’s letter to Google is just one more salvo in the expanding war against the internet, against this unstoppable arena of free speech. The Senate Homeland Security Committee, headed by Lieberman, released a report just weeks ago identifying the internet as a tool for terrorist promotion and propaganda. The House also recently passed the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which further blames the internet for facilitating terrorism.

Inherent in these assaults is a fear of the internet and a failure to understand how free speech works in this medium. In his letter to Google, Senator Lieberman asks that the company remove all videos produced by groups designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the US government. He suggests that, “this should be a straightforward task since so many of the Islamist terrorist organizations brand their material with logos or icons identifying their provenance.”

It is not a straightforward task. Thousands of videos are uploaded by individual users to YouTube everyday. For an administrator, or even a squad of administrators, to review every video before it is posted, as the Senator suggests, would create a bottleneck that would virtually cripple the website.

It is for this reason, in addition to free speech concerns, that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act stipulates that websites may not be held liable or sued for declining to censor user-generated content. To hold YouTube, or MySpace, or eBay, or Wikipedia, or any of the millions of websites like them, liable for the individual content created by each individual user would be devastating to the internet.

Yet the Senator has hinted, and many top technology-policy experts are concerned, that he might attempt to write an exemption to Section 230 that would require censorship in some cases. Does Mr. Liebermann really believe that if YouTube censors them, there won’t be any more Islamic terrorist videos on the internet?

Banning or removing videos from YouTube simply means that they will be found instead on websites like Vimeo or Photobucket or Metacafe, or on sites that are outside the United States, beyond the federal government’s jurisdiction. The only way to come close to controlling internet content is to replicate China’s censorship system. But, fortunately, there is zero public support for building a Great Firewall in America.

Every attempt to squeeze the internet tighter allows a little more to slip through. Already there are some websites that the US government has attempted to ban: internet poker, for example. But these sites, after being banned, simply set up shop in other countries. And they are still accessible from any internet-connected computer in the US.

There are horrible things online: child pornography, pro-anorexia sites, sites that give detailed bomb-making instructions and, yes, websites that promote terrorist organizations. But blaming the internet for this content misses the point.

Terrorists use the internet to spread their message because it is an effective and easily available tool (though not the only one.) But it is a tool available to all sides and freedom of speech can work against terrorists. Instead of calling for censorship of videos or internet content, the government should encourage the use of those same channels to spread contrasting messages and views.

This is the primary hope of the globalization of the internet: that people around the world can experience freedom of speech, expression and understanding.

Kelly Dunleavy is the Executive Assistant for CFAC and can be reached at