Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Protecting Consumers of Information

By Lucas DodgePublished March 24, 2014

Technological development in the information sector is outpacing the capacity for regulatory bodies to craft effective policy; the Internet is presenting unique challenges in terms of free speech, privacy, and consumer protection.

By Lucas Dodge, 3/24/2014

The Internet is revolutionizing how information is shared throughout the world, dramatically increasing the ease of, access to, amount of, and variability within available information. It has provided a new platform for sharing ideas and participating in politics. Throughout much of the world, censorship is still the government response to technologies that provide more efficient, anonymous forms of communication. Fortunately, online free speech is protected in the U.S. The Supreme Court of the United Stated (SCOTUS) ruled in Reno v. ACLU that Internet communication has the highest level of First Amendment protection, similar to print media. In addition to a court ruling protecting internet communication from censorship by the government, Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 protects Internet service providers from liability for communication happening over their networks, effectively removing an incentive for censorship by private entities for their own legal protection. Although these examples indicate a continuing policy commitment to protecting rights in  cyberspace, there remains much more to be done.

Internet communication is a new frontier for sharing data, with little specific legal precedent relating the Fourth Amendment to online privacy. Much of the information gathered by police in this ‘digital age' that would have previously required a search warrant can easily be obtained by getting a subpoena for personal files stored electronically by a third-party. This means law enforcement can gather personal information like emails, web searches, bank records, and physical locations of electronic devices without suspecting a crime. The imbalance between privacy standards in the physical and cyber realms has real implications. According to Journalists Without Borders, a non-profit promoting freedom of information worldwide, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has spied on millions of citizens online, put security flaws into devices that access the Internet, and have essentially turned the Internet into a massive surveillance tool.

Unfortunately, there are barriers to free and open communication online other than those imposed by governments. Internet service providers have the ability to interfere with communication by blocking or slowing it down; this could be to limit the audience of speech that makes them look bad, to block competing applications, or to obtain leverage over website developers. The American Civil Liberties Union has documented incidents of arbitrary and anti-competition access blockage by major communications companies including Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T.

Where does this all leave us in terms of policy protecting Internet users from government censorship, surveillance, and manipulation of online communication for profit? For now, it's very hard to say. Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts believe we still have yet to build a legal framework that can translate precedent and protection from physical to electronic communication. SCOTUS also recently ruled that the FCC cannot enforce net neutrality as it had until recently, but also ruled that they could make stronger or weaker regulations.