Impacts of the Internet on Free Expression, a Very Short Survey

Concepts of free expression have been evolving in the world, since at least the contributions of Plato to the institution of Western philosophy. Foucault provides a perspective about the historic meaning of free speech, as early as Ancient Greece – there addressing speech not only as an object of philosophical theory, but also for speech as action, within the society of discourse.

In the centuries since Plato’s rhetoric, the concept of free expression itself was challenged historically under the Crown in Britain, such as with the censorship invited by the Printing Ordinance of 1643. In the 18th century, the Crown’s ability to limit speech in the Colonies was then tested in the trial of John Peter Zenger, in a court case that preceded the State of New York by only some few decades.

Fast-forwarding in this all-too-brief historical timeline, across the many conflicts about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly during the emergence of Civil Rights and political activism in the US, and the later anti-war movement during the disastrous sequel on the primarily US-driven Korean War, then at the time of the US-driven conflict in Vietnam and its innumerable effects, regionally and globally, lastly leaping across the conflicts about speech introduced in relation to the emergence of governmental secrecy, such as up to and during the time of the Reagan Administration’s perhaps fairly popular approach to the Cold War and how that has shaped federal policy and US culture then and since, today we have the Internet, a globally reaching network of digital communication services, most commonly “Web Sites.” Originally a project driven by some handful of universities, a couple of companies, and RAND, then ever more commonly adopted up to the time of the political epoch of The Now, how has this new technology shaped the nature of free expression, both in the liberal West and globally?

We might begin to address this challenging question by focusing on the relatively recent history of political change since the popular era of the Presidency of Barrack Obama. While the legacy of President Obama might be recorded in generally positive tones, in most perspectives of history – though there are some meaningful criticisms, such as about the impacts of Presidential policy at the time, in the global sphere – certainly, much of society throughout the world may have experienced the duration of Barrack Obama’s singular Presidency as a time of political change.

The emergence of the digitally networked public sphere has not necessarily introduced new fundamental social mechanisms—humans still behave like humans. Digital technologies have, however, drastically altered the conditions under which these mechanisms operate on social movements.

– Zeynep Tufekci

In the book, Twitter and Tear Gas, Zeynep Tufekci illustrates the significance of the Internet not only as a sort of assistive technology in the organizing of popular responses to government, but furthermore for the Internet as facilitating the communication of news about generally oppressive political and governmental responses to protests – such as in Egypt – ultimately to the effect of any single “Internet Shutdown”, nationally. (Certainly, Tufekci’s text provides a much broader and meaningful perspective than might be conveyed here – there’s a complete review, at Digital Humanities Quarterly. For the purpose of literary continuity, this text will endeavor to focus on concerns related to the Internet.)

Access Now addresses the concept of Internet Shutdowns as within a framing about the right to freedom of assembly – a concept both formally and legally codified within the US Bill of Rights. As a sort of localized metaphor, perhaps this approach may help to illustrate the social significance of politically-motivated internet shutdowns in the world, but in a sense that might be accessible to readers in the US.

Notwithstanding the ideological objections of certain UN General Assembly members, the United Nations has itself expanded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to address freedom of expression in general, furthermore addressing human rights as specifically on the Internet. An article at the Brookings Institution provides an introduction to this 2016 amendment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its relevance within the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals initiative.

Presently, this article will return to consider a sense of the impacts of the Internet on freedom of expression generally in popular society.

The problem, as Mills saw it, was that development of the self was trivialized into “hobbies”—they were being amateurized, in other words—and so relegated to the lesser realm of leisure as opposed to the realm of legitimate labor.


We should be skeptical of the narrative of democratization by technology alone. The promotion of Internet-enabled amateurism is a lazy substitute for real equality of opportunity. More deeply, it’s a symptom of the retreat over the past half century from the ideals of meaningful work, free time, and shared prosperity—an agenda that entailed enlisting technological innovation for the welfare of each person, not just the enrichment of the few.

– Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor provides a source of insights about the emergence of commercial interests on the Internet, furthermore about the effects of industry towards artistic expression and creative culture in the US, in the book, The People’s Platform. Proceeding beyond the generally utopian presentation of the Internet Era as a Belle Époque, this text may help to illustrate how the Internet has shaped free expression both within and beyond political action in contemporary society.

For as much as the Internet may ever facilitate a generally supportive role for communications and communicators in the world today, perhaps not all of the effects of this new technology would be as well received by all political actors. In one more item that might cast a shadow on the Utopian model of the Internet, there’s also the example of Social Media being used for something not unlike a mercenary form of psychological operations (psyops) and strategic infiltration towards protest groups in the US, such as was directed against protestors demonstrating against the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline and its environmental impacts.

In light of this item of news, and the news since then, perhaps the protests during the Trump administration might begin to seem chillingly similar to the protests in Egypt, earlier this millennium – but in the US, at least of some of this sort of thing is privatized now?

As individual persons within any single, local or more globally networked society, today, what can we do to address these impacts on freedom of expression? To follow the UN’s approach, perhaps we might begin by creating a delineation of the rights that we would wish to see protected – such as to produce a formal list, if not a more casually written manifesto.

If the Electronic Frontier Foundation might pardon this approximate comparison to the United Nations, the EFF’s work might represent an effort to protect these rights for freedom of expression, in a local scale of approach. Perhaps the events of the years 2016-2022 may serve to provide an example of how necessary this form of work may be, in the US – compared to how much some political actors may seem to favor a literal autocracy, if such a form of rule was whatsoever sustainable in Washington, D.C today. If there may be other ideas possible in civic imagination, perhaps there’s some hope for the present after all.

While there’s punk music still, and other such classic forms of free expression, perhaps there’s no grave concern about the nature of advocacy in a world of open communication today.

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