Free Speech in the Digital World Under Threat?

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COMMENTARY

Free Speech in the Digital World under Threat?
Kirsty Hughes

We are at a moment where the digital world can go either way – it can become a space of genuine free expression, one enjoyed by ever larger numbers of people or it can become a controlled and monitored space. Like any battle for free speech and fundamental rights, governments and other major players – in this case big web companies and internet service providers – must be held to account and challenged to defend our rights.

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he digital world continues to open up huge opportunities for communication, interaction, sharing views and exchanging information across and within borders. It is even rather dated to say we are all our own publishers now, we can all be citizen journalists – though we are and can be. And as millions more people in the next couple of years join that digital world as the price of smart phones fall, the digital revolution is surely not over. Or is it? Are Governments Hardwired to Snoop and Censor?

Kirsty Hughes (hugheskirsty@gmail.com) is with the Index on Censorship, London, United Kingdom.

The ability of both governments and big corporations to monitor the internet, to gather data on us all, to determine what we can and cannot do or see on the web is another key but less welcome part of our digital world. And censorship and surveillance of digital communications is on the rise – not only in countries such as Iran, China and Russia, but also in India, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). While China’s “great firewall” and army of snoopers does its best to block a whole gamut of politically-sensitive topics and debates – sensitive that is to China’s authoritarian elites – the democratic world is increasingly looking at using the technological opportunities out there, either to block content, or to monitor their own citizens. Earlier this year, Indian authorities came top in Google’s transparency report – which shows government requests to Google to remove material and how many Google complied with – with the largest number of requests for Google to take down posts not backed by court orders. The US and Brazil had the highest number of takedown demands backed by court orders, while in Twitter’s similar transparency report, the US was the number one country demanding information on users. Google and Twitter also go along with many but not all of the requests NovemBER 17, 2012

they receive – private companies playing a crucial role in determining the extent of our free speech and our privacy. Meanwhile in the UK, a draft Communications Data Bill currently being scrutinised in Parliament, would, if it became law, lead to monitoring and retention of a vast array of digital data across the entire population. From tracking who our emails go to or come from, likewise our phone calls, to storing the data our mobiles give up on our locations or our web searches, showing what topics we are investigating, the draft UK Bill certainly deserves its popular name “a snooper’s charter”. Iran is also aiming to develop its own intranet that would operate in a way detached from the wider world-wide web, and so be much easier to control by state authorities. But how can India or the UK or US stand up to Iran and pressure them not to cut their citizens off from the wider digital world, if they are not fully respecting basic rights of their own citizens online? What Is Driving the Urge to Control? Freedom of expression is a fundamental right – and without it democracies cannot function and power cannot be held to account. So why are so many governments increasingly looking at control of our digital lives? There are two overlapping justifications at the heart of this. Do we need protecting from being offended? Attempts to justify censorship often appeal to the protection of public order, or public morals, tackling hate speech, or promoting national security. But unless highly limited, such censorship rapidly intrudes on open...
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