Internet expression has a double restriction: obviously, governmental censorship, but also, and a grayer area, corporate censorship. Internet providers and social networking sites can apply their own standards of taste when judging whether or not something on their site is offensive. It is also difficult for websites to discern which are indeed the sites at fault. In New York, thousands of newsgroups were disbanded in an attempt to shut down child pornography sites. Many of these sites had nothing to do with pornography, but it was easier to disband them, for administrative reasons. Photographer Maarten Dors had a photo of a Romanian street kid removed from the photo-sharing site, Flickr, because the child was smoking a cigarette. Yahoo Inc., owner of Flickr, had the picture removed, as depicting adolescent smoking went against company policy. Yahoo later apologized and reposted the photo. One of the difficulties in the debates over internet censorship is

the desire to inflict real-world free-speech ideals onto what is private property. Expressions that in the real world would be protected under the First Amendment follow stricter guidelines when posted on the internet. Corporations are often the arbiters of internet decency, but those standards reflect corporate policy, sometimes even individuals. According to an Associated Press article, “First Amendment protections generally do not extend to private property in the physical world, allowing a shopping mall to legally kick out a customer wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a smoking child.”

Virtual communities created by social networking websites continue to blur the lines between the two worlds, physical and virtual. While more and more of our lives are spent online, as more and more of our information is obtained and our opinions are formed there, that blur will become fainter. It will be interesting to see how measures of the decency of our expression will be different in real-life and the internet.

By Mark Alvarez