A few weeks ago I wrote about the greater ease of publishing on the Internet has been accompanied by increases in Internet censorship. In that post I mentioned how Internet service providers ("ISPs") are censoring their own subscribers and passing judgment themselves, instead of leaving those responsibilities to police and the courts (click here to jump to that post).
Now we read that a public school in Illinois, USA, will monitor the Internet activities of its students when they are not at school, and will punish them if the school decides that the activity is illegal. "Not to worry," says the school board. According to the Associated Press article, "District officials won't regularly search students' sites, but will
monitor them if they get a worrisome tip from another student, a parent
or a community member." Hmm.
Unfortunately, the Associated Press article focused on the right to privacy issue, which the school board rightly argued was not valid, since blogs and other websites are public by nature. However, they missed the problem caused by schools, not courts, deciding the limits of a student's freedom of speech.
Just yesterday the US Supreme Court decided that "20 million public employees do not have free-speech protections for what they say as part of their jobs" (click here for the AP article), creating the potential for more situations where institutions other than the courts assume the responsibility of judging individuals' behavior and administering punishment.
The ruling overturned an appeals court decision that said Los Angeles County prosecutor Richard Ceballos was constitutionally protected when he wrote a memo questioning whether a county sheriff's deputy had lied in a search warrant affidavit. Ceballos had filed a lawsuit claiming he was demoted and denied a promotion for trying to expose the lie.
One serious outcome of this ruling is that government employees will be less willing to speak out about the improper behavior of other civil servants for fear that they could be punished instead of the real wrongdoers.
Yes, Internet freedoms are an issue, but we normally frame them in terms of freedom of expression. Now these freedoms are compromised by institutions who, out of expedience or profit -as in the cases of MSN and Google in China- are taking the law into their own hands. Which of our remaining civil liberties is next?