Philosophical Foundations for Free Expression: The Public Sphere

The concept of the public sphere, brought forth by Jurgen Habermas, a German sociologist and philosopher, illustrates that the debates about free expression in the European Union has some deeper history. Though the original idea of the public sphere does not specifically relate to Internet regulation and censorship, it is easy to extend it.

The public sphere is a place in which people can meet and freely discuss political policy and societal problems. It is a place where citizens form the public opinion and can attempt to turn that into political action. This is commonly thought of as the core of democratic governments, as democracies are governments that listen to and rest upon its people, i.e. the public. The public sphere is usually characterized by three traits: disregard of status, domain of common concern, and inclusivity. The first implies that those who participate in public discussion have no status over anyone else involved. The second means that those involved share a common interest in the discussion, and the third implies that the public sphere is inherently inclusive of people, and can never become so exclusive that it is considered a "clique." The concept of the public sphere was influenced by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant's idea that a maxim is "right" if it is acceptable to all members of the society implies that there must be open discussion in order to see what is right or wrong.

With the growth of the Internet, we see that it can also be considered a form of the public sphere. Thus we can apply the same arguments that others have given in support of the public sphere, which in turn are arguments against censorship. Within a democracy, people should have equal access to sources of information and equal opportunities to participate in political debates. Specifically, in the past, the European Union lacked a public sphere with enough scale to encompass all member states. Now, however, the Internet can assume that role.