Looking at Internet Censorship from a Historical Standpoint

As new technologies and outlets for expression are introduced, the United States government rushes to monitor and regulate. The Internet, specifically, poses a challenge for the government. Child pornography and other obvious detrimental trolls that lurk on the Internet rightly warrant government action. However, SOPA would provide the government expansive control over the Internet. Considering the United State’s history of censorship in other arenas and the extent to which it has violated freedom in past cases, it is naïve to think regulations for the Internet wouldn’t cross the line.

 

Government censorship has been causing controversy for centuries. The first well-known case took place during the Civil War. In 1864, a postman found nude photos in several packages destined for overseas troops. The U.S. government then banned “obscene” books, photographs, etc. from mail via the U.S. Postal Service (Qazi, 2009).

 

Around the same time, pieces of literature deemed “obscene” due to inappropriate phrases and passages were banned, recalled, and burned. Anthony Comstock, one of the leading censorship crusaders of his time, was the mastermind behind this movement (Qazi, 2009). In 1873, Comstock convinced Congress to pass a law banning any form of literature or publication that spoke of contraceptives, birth control, and abortion. However, Congress let Comstock extend the limitations of this law and the result was the elimination of 160 tons of publications that Comstock deemed “obscene” (Rierson, 2004). Essentially, Congress allowed one man to control the voices of thousands of authors and writers. And even today, controversial books including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been banned from school districts who still agree with prior censorship efforts towards literature.

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These are just two blatant examples of U.S. government censorship. Today, we look back on these cases and laugh at the ridiculous arguments made to support the tight restrictions on what we can mail and what we can read. If SOPA is passed, will our grandchildren look back on us with the same disbelief and disappointment? Absolutely.

 

Rierson, S. (2004). Comstock act (1873). eNotes. Retrieved from http://www.enotes.com/comstock-act-1873-reference/comstock-act-1873

Qazi, U. (2009). The internet censorship controversy. Virginia Tech. Retrieved from http://courses.cs.vt.edu/cs3604/lib/Censorship/notes.html