Free Speech, Privacy and Property Rights

Free Speech, Privacy, and Property Rights in the Information Age; Originally written March 2002; updated on August 2006 to reflect certain legislative actions with regard to COPA and the Cyber Crime treaty.

Table of Contents



Many issues swirling around the astounding advances in information technology are considered by some unique to the Information Age. Issues such as free speech, privacy and property rights are not unique; the advent of information technology merely introduces new aspects to these issues that were not evident before the technological advances. The Internet, data mining, and software piracy are new subsets of old and settled issues. Many groups and individuals advocate for new laws to control the technology and its possible abuse, but the old laws and ethics do apply, taking into consideration the new scope and scale of the technology and applying the old with common sense and respect for individual and corporate freedoms and guaranteed rights.



The rapid pace of technological information processing advances has improved the quality of life for most people in the world. With this rapid advance, have also come the ethical dilemmas of invasions of privacy, infringement of property and ownership rights. Ethical dilemmas abound in this era known as the “Information Age”, which began over 50 years ago with the introduction of the first computer capable of storing a program in its own memory (BBC News, 1998).


The Information Age is still in its infancy with computing power more than doubling every year, technological advances in data retrieval and data storage, and the cost of ownership of the technology trending downward. It is conservatively estimated that by 2010, a notebook computer will have the same computing power as today’s supercomputer (Dewar, 1998). The future is not at all clear on where or when the development of the technology will begin to level off. What is clear is that there will be unintended consequences associated with the development, anticipated worldwide saturation of information technology, and the laws, regulations and ethics society adopts to deal with this explosion.


The early changes and consequences brought about by the invention of networked computers in many ways parallel the changes and consequences brought about by the printing press. The printing press was the first one to many communications system. It essentially fixed knowledge by copying it and distributing it widely. To be sure, the printing press also distributed inaccurate information. The ability to update print, in the form of revised editions and the opportunity of opponents of a point of view to publish their own version of disputed information enhanced the accuracy of distributed information.


Networked computers, such as those on the Internet produce a many to many communications relationship, allowing knowledge and information to be distributed not only widely, but instantly and easily updateable. Before networked computers, the time it took to update information in print was measured in days for newspapers and magazines, to years for books and references. Networked computers decrease the time that it takes to update knowledge exponentially, to hours on the World Wide Web and newsgroups or in the case of real time chat programs, it can be measured in seconds. The only other communications medium that makes it possible for information to be instantly updated is 24 hour television and radio and that technology is a one to many communications medium, with little or no opportunity for feedback to the sender. (Dewar, 1998)


The printing press enabled the Scientific Revolution by fixing and preserving knowledge and by enabling new knowledge to be recorded and distributed. The wide distribution of knowledge and ideas also brought about unintended consequences, such as the rethinking of old ideas. Before the printing press, the Catholic Church controlled the Bible. There was only one interpretation. After the printing press, various versions were distributed and the Protestant Reformation was born. The printing press also brought about the concept of ownership of information and the idea of copyrights. The changes and unintended consequences brought about by the printing press can be clearly seen and understood because of the passage of many centuries. (Dewar, 1998)


The changes and consequences of the information age, fueled by networked computers are still too close in time to be objectively observed and analyzed. The direction that society is headed because of the revolution in information technology has not yet solidified. The technology itself is continuing to evolve and the end state is not yet achieved. The trend towards wireless communication is new and the direction this technology will take society is unknown. What is known is that with the proliferation of instantly obtainable and infinitely storable and retrievable data will also come society’s need to determine the ethical and lawful constraints that need to be placed on the use of this technology to preserve the rights and dignity of the individual.


There are many issues surrounding the ethical use of information systems; copyright infringement, data mining and collection of personal data, hate speech on the Web, pornography, etc. All of these seemingly diverse issues have been thoroughly studied, discussed and regulated in the past, before the Information Revolution, under the more general issues of freedom of speech, property rights, and privacy rights. These issues are not necessarily unique. What is unique about these issues in the Information Age is the stunning new potential for abuse in these areas enabled by technology.

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