Recent developments in Russia, China, Turkey, and France highlight the issue of freedom of expression, how we in the United States sometimes take it for granted, and how taking it for granted may not be such a good thing.
At the end of 2014, Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, signed a new law requiring that data about Russians be stored on computers inside Russia. It’s thought that the motivation is that this will make it easier for the Russian government to learn about what its citizens do and say. Google as a result plans to close its engineering offices in Russia.
A few weeks earlier, the Russian government demanded that a Facebook page promoting an anti-government rally be removed. Facebook blocked the page from its 10 million Russian users, though dozens of copycat web pages around the Internet quickly emerged. Last year Putin called the Internet a special CIA project.
Turkey last year demanded that Twitter block tweets announcing leaked documents and audio recordings that implicated government officials in a corruption investigation. Twitter refused, and Turkey ordered the shutdown of Twitter in the country. Legions of Turkish users figured out workarounds to circumvent the shutdown until Turkish courts finally overturned it. Turkish opposition uses Twitter to get its messages out to Turkish citizens. But Facebook continues to remove pages when asked by the Turkish government.
Pakistan regularly gets Facebook to take down pages it doesn’t like, and Google’s YouTube video service is currently blocked there. Last year Twitter briefly blocked tweets that the Pakistani government deemed “blasphemous,” but it has since reversed this policy.
China has long stood out as being aggressive in pressuring Internet companies to censor users within China. In 2010 Google discontinued its service in China as a result. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the most part are blocked in China today.
Americans typically think of European countries has having similar attitudes about free speech as we do. Despite the sometimes outlandish actions by British newspapers, there’s a stronger tradition of privacy in Europe than the U.S., which counters freedom of expression. A European Union (EU) court last year established that members of EU countries have a “right to be forgotten” and that Google must take down links to negative material about people if requested.
At the time of this writing, France was wrestling with what to do about expression that explicitly or implicitly criticizes specific religions. After the murder of employees of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo for what Muslim extremists considered blasphemy, French authorities arrested comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for speaking out freely and appearing to express sympathy for the terrorists. In the past Dieudonné has made fun of the Holocaust.
On the Internet, freedom of expression worldwide has been declining significantly, according to a study by Freedom House, an organization founded in 1941 that advocates democracy, political freedom, and human rights. The study found that 53% of the countries surveyed reported a fall in Internet freedom last year. According to the report, countries with the most draconian policies against Internet freedom are Iran, Syria, and China.
The Internet has been called the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the best advancement in democracy since universal suffrage, and the greatest soapbox ever built. Social media can reach even the most fettered corners of the world, with the ideal that people can speak their minds about issues of the day.
Clearly the Internet is a threat to ruling authorities in some countries. In the U.S. freedom of speech can be both a privilege and a burden. Sometimes what you read on the Internet can make the hair on your neck stand on end. You’ll find some of the most malicious and inflammatory material imaginable, full of racial, religious, and cultural intolerance, bigotry, and hatred.
But it’s long been recognized in this country that the best answer to “evil” speech is “more speech,” as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote more than a half century ago.
The late journalist Richard Pothier once put it this way in an online discussion: “Censorship is never the answer to unpopular opinions. The ‘court of public opinion’ makes its own judgment. Intolerance, bigotry, and other stupidity are seen for what they are.”
This doesn’t mean you don’t need to be careful on an individual basis. People in the U.S. have been fired, sued, and arrested for online posts. You can get in trouble, among other ways, by threatening another person physically or telling a lie that damages a person’s reputation.