Nothing’s more American than speaking your mind, which is probably why freedom of speech has been enshrined throughout the nation’s history. This right to free speech is something almost all Americas agree on, regardless of political affiliation.
The Internet is freedom of speech’s ultimate incarnation ““ a place where anyone can start their own website and say whatever they want. It stands to reason then that Americans should be able to do whatever they like on the Internet…right?
Not entirely. There are limits to what you can do on the Internet, and even to what you can say. Here’s is a list of illegal websites that Americans are not allowed to found and operate.
FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
Freedom of speech is not absolute in America ““ there are certain limits, perhaps the most famous of which is yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. This idea, first penned in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the opinion for Schenck v. United States means that free speech does not give people the right to cause panic amongst the public for no good reason.
So if you want to start a website that regularly claims a terrorist is going to take out, say, Omaha Nebraska, expect to be arrested.
This limit to free speech has already been tested online: in 2006 a 20-year-old grocer living with his parents claimed he was going to blow up various football stadiums with dirty bombs. He was arrested, even though the FBI quickly found out he had no capability to carry out the actions in question.
So one thing you cannot do on the Internet is cause a widespread panic with a groundless threat.
Piracy Is Wrong
This one’s obvious enough, right? United States intellectual property law makes it illegal for Americans to host websites that offer access to intellectual property without permission from the copyright owners.
If you’ve ever used Bittorrent to download materials illegally ““ and I certainly haven’t, because I’m a law abiding American patriot who loves the flag and baseball and apple pie and Jesus ““ you probably noticed most of the public Bittorrent trackers are based overseas. There’s a good reason for this: American copyright law means any American-based torrent tracker can be sued by media and software companies.
So if you want to start a Bittorrent tracker ““ or any kind of file sharing site ““ in the United States of America, make sure everything being shared there complies with US copyright law. This doesn’t mean you can’t share cool stuff: Linux distributions and some public domain music, movies and books can all be distributed within the law. But expect to be shut down quickly if your users upload illegal content and you do nothing about it.
But from what I hear ““ and I have no way to confirm this personally because of my aforementioned love of the flag and baseball and apple pie and Jesus ““ there are lots of good Bittorrent trackers for the less-than-legal stuff hosted overseas but fully accessible to Americans.
Which brings us to an interesting point: the law of one country does not apply to content hosted in other countries. This is a common Internet loophole used to circumvent American law.
Gambling Is Only Moral Offline – In Certain Places.
There’s nothing illegal about gambling in the privacy of your own home with a few friends. If you want to run an online gambling business that pulls in millions of dollars weekly, however, expect to face some legal scrutiny.
Betting on sports on the Internet is banned nationwide, thanks to a United States Court of Appeals ruling back in 2002. Other sorts of online gambling are not banned federally, but most states have laws in place declaring such activities illegal in one way or another.
In the physical world gambling is only legal in certain areas from state to state. Native American reservations are frequently the sites of casinos because they are considered sovereign and as such exempt from state laws. Additionally, some states will allow gambling in certain areas ““ Las Vegas, Nevada is perhaps the most famous example of this, but many states have similar areas.
Online gambling is more complicated to regulate than in-person gambling, however, because while the website’s server may be in a region where gambling is legal the site’s patrons probably are not. It’s for this reason that such sites are usually shut down.
As with piracy, however, online gambling isn’t necessarily illegal overseas, and people in countries with differing laws are more than willing to capitalize. The Caymen Islands famously has no prohibition on online gambling, and a number of sites frequented (illegally) by Americans call that country home.
In the United States any website that hosts child pornography is illegal and is liable to be shut down. Quickly. Sex with minors being an offense nationwide (not to mention completely disgusting), it’s easy to understand why documentation of such an act is illegal as well. I’m not going to delve into this further, because it is very unpleasant, but it’s an example of the sort of behavior not tolerated on the Internet.
As we mentioned above, threatening to plot violence without the means to do so is illegal in America because it’s not right to cause an undue panic. It shouldn’t be too surprising then to find out that it’s also illegal to threaten violence on the Internet if you actually do have the means to follow through.
That’s right: you’re not allowed to start your own Internet-based terrorist network. Sorry if I just ruined your plans for the holiday season.
There you have it: a short list of illegal websites that you can not start in the United States of America. While I’m certain few of you were planning on starting a website that hosted empty threats against America, gave access to copywritten material, allows people to gamble across state lines or build a terrorist network, it is very interesting to see the limits of freedoms online.
Do you think such limits are just, or should the Internet become a digital zone of anarchy? Let us know your views in the comments!