Should Freedom of Expression Be Guaranteed on the Internet?

By | April 9, 2015

Political cartoon by Gwendal Le Bec, created after Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January 2015.

Illustration by Gwendal Le Bec, created after Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January 2015.

Is freedom of expression a universal and inalienable right? What about free expression posted on the Internet?

On April 6, 2015, the UConn Global House Learning Community invited me to participate in a timely panel discussion on how ideas of free speech and freedom of expression vary across the world and how the 21st century modes of communication are changing standards.

“Our increasingly interconnected world means that a news article, a cartoon or a comment published in one location may be globally available in seconds. Since the standards for acceptable speech may vary with each community, let alone country, this has led to significant issues, for example the January 2015 attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which left 12 people dead.”

Mitchell Pearlman, lecturer in journalism and former executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, and Ryan King, a journalism major and general manager of WHUS Radio joined me on the panel.

Here’s my PowerPoint presentation: “ Media and the Limits to Free Speech in the 21st Century.” Remarks, as prepared, can be found below.

In today’s information climate, most of us have the luxury of constant connection. The Internet is an unrivaled forum for discussion and debate, and people all around the world are using the web to share information.

Before we had the Internet, systems of information delivery were slow and controlled. If you wanted to reach a large audience, you usually had to go through a traditional media company – a newspaper, radio station and/or TV. And even then, you were unlikely to reach a global audience. Your message, as filtered by the media property, could extend only as far as delivery trucks and/or broadcast signal would travel.

But now, with the explosive growth of social media, so far and so fast information, misinformation and opinions can spread online.

Online speech has the potential to be global because of platforms and intermediaries like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Google.

New computer-mediated communication tools have created “millions of new authors.” With peer-to-peer networks and social media, there is really more speech than ever before.

More speech than ever, in theory, could mean more democratic engagement. We can share our opinions, our artwork, our music — document our entire lives.

However, the digital communication picture isn’t all rosy. There are deterrents to free expression in the online space. Standards for “acceptable speech” vary in each country, each culture, each religion.

As the world gets more global, the distance between us gets shorter, as do the causes of conflict. Speech that is acceptable in the US may not be OK in the UK or in India or Egypt or in China.

Technology and network connections can extend that speech beyond the border of the host country. Internet is vast space all its own. It’s been considered the wild west – a major disruptor of the status quo.

Now in many ways, decentralized networks have made it harder for oppressive governments to control online speech. Because information comes from so many places and is being published by so many, it is very hard to encapsulate. It wants to be free.

And we’ve realized that we, the people, aren’t just a culture of consumers. We are creators, too. We like these tools. We can use to document and share information about our lives and our opinions.

But in spite of all the promise of technology and the World Wide Web, there are forces today that negatively impact freedom of expression.

Governments exert controls and pressures to make the web less free, because people often left to their own devices will use it for what’s considered “bad behavior” — expression that the majority doesn’t like.

There are technical censorship methods that are unique to the Internet, such as site blocking and content filtering.

Oppressive governments often use technological solutions to block access to sites. Twitter, YouTube and Google has been blocked in various countries due to unrest. Governments also use technology to conduct surveillance of citizens whose opinions they don’t like and target those people to silence them.

Governments can put pressure on third-party sites to restrict access to content, based on location.

The most prominent deterrent to free expression on World Wide Web is technical censorship.

What are the motives or rationales for Internet filtering? Politics and power, social norms and morals, and security concerns.

Will the United States start employing technology – smart algorithms – to eliminate “unlawful” online speech?

For example, YikYak is an anonymous “free speech” app that is causing all kinds of problems on college campuses. Would it be OK if UConn set up its wi-fi as to block access to YikYak? If that’s OK, what if it blocked Twitter next? Or Facebook? Or Instagram? Or SnapChat? Or shut down UCTV? Or WHUS? Or The Daily Campus?

Ban the platform, stifle the speech? Is the platform the problem? Or the speech that’s on it?

Sophisticated authoritarian regimes can use the web not just for propaganda purposes but to track their opposition. Governments can track and punish journalists.

Private intermediaries like Twitter, Google and Facebook now control much of what information/expression people can access and share. If one of these Internet giants decides to change an algorithm (or are pressured by governments to do so), certain information may never surface. Governments also apply pressure on intermediaries to remove unacceptable content.

Public shaming is another issue. That’s a problem we experienced here at UConn. There was a female student who published an open letter to Pres. Herbst about new husky logo and how it resembled a rape meme. Look at the pictures. It does. But because of her “expression,” she was taunted both online and offline.

Shaming – and intimidation – deters free expression, making us afraid to participate.

Can there be any expression online without risk of attention? Probably not.

Some examples of this: In October 2013, a Michigan woman sparked online rage when she dressed up for Halloween as a Boston Marathon bombing victim, took a picture of herself and posted it to social media. Tasteless? Yes. Somebody influential found it (probably a journalist) and amplified it to a large audience. Millions viewed her picture, and as a result, the woman was shamed mercilessly online.

Another incident in December 2013 involved a senior director of corporate communications named Justine Sacco. Sacco had a meager 170 Twitter followers, when on a flight to Cape Town, she made a very bad joke about Africa and AIDS on her Twitter account. The folks at Gawker (journalists?) amplified her tasteless tweet – out of context – and bringing it to the attention of hordes of online strangers, who took it upon themselves to publicly shame her. Like being in the stocks in the public square.

Obscurity online is not guaranteed. If you post publicly, assume it is like a billboard on the highway. Your tweet lives on forever.

My question for you is: Should access to the Internet be considered a basic human right? And if so, s hould freedom of expression be guaranteed on the Internet?

Does your answer to these questions change if I remind you that villains can use digital technology for expression just as much as victims?

(Example: YouTube videos of beheadings were an ISIS recruitment tool.)

In the end, know that humans are subversive and resilient. Technologically savvy users will find ways to access, share and “express” blocked content.

When it comes to free expression, how do you feel about moderation? Does any type of moderation equal censorship? Or are some basic standards required so that people’s conversations/interactions don’t devolve into chaos and destruction?

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