"Free speech in cyberspace is not guaranteed", warned Jeffrey Shallit, associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo and co-founder of Electronic Frontier Canada, an electronic civil liberties group, in a talk at the Kitchener Public Library entitled "The Future of Free Speech in Cyberspace".
Shallit pointed to several threats to free speech, ranging from unwise government regulation to potential domination of the Internet service provider (ISP) market by a small number of ISP's.
"A free society depends on free speech", Shallit said. "The Internet allows even small organizations to get their viewpoints exposed to the public eye." He pointed to the recent success of Nobel prize-winning anti-landmine activist Jody Williams. "The anti-landmine movement succeeded on a shoestring budget, in part because of their effective use of the Internet."
Totalitarian governments are particularly threatened by free speech on the Internet, and work to suppress it, Shallit noted. China, for example, announced new controls on Internet access just last month.
"We mustn't be complacent in Canada", Shallit said. "Some groups, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, are demanding that the Internet be regulated like broadcasting." Such regulation is unneeded and would cripple the Internet's commitment to lively, open debate, Shallit noted. "Furthermore, the historical rationale for broadcast regulation is very weak, and has served to reinforce corporate media control and minimize diversity of opinion."
Shallit also objected to the use of so-called "filtering" technology in public libraries. "Current filters are overly broad, and deny community access to content that is merely controversial and not illegal, such as sites dealing with gay rights", Shallit noted. "Furthermore, many people don't realize that some groups building filters have a hidden agenda in mind."
The Burlington Public Library recently examined the question of adding filters to their Internet access, but eventually rejected filters as a censorship device.