By Dr John Sydenham  30/11/2022

Many declarations of Human Rights include the Right to Free Expression.  This Right collides with the Right not to be harmed in various ways and this has created pressure to limit our freedom of expression.  In the following article the Right to Free Expression is teased apart and analysed with special reference to online freedoms and harms.

Free Speech

In this age of "Human Rights" the freedom to speak is often confused with the "Right to Free Expression" which immediately involves problems such as pornography in the discussion.  Free Speech is speaking freely, it does not even include writing.  The effects of speech are dependent on where it occurs: shout words into an empty space and there is no more effect than thinking the words.  The issue of free speech is about where it occurs and then about the content of the speech.  The ancient Greek philosophers called these two aspects of free speech isegoria and parrhesia.

Depriving people of a place to speak is the most effective way of stopping free speech.  This will be dealt with at the end of this article.

If we assume that speakers have a place to speak then the problem arises of why people might wish to limit this speech.  The prime reason that is given is always to prevent harm.  A well balanced adult should be able to hear any words without harm.  Indeed, this robustness is almost a definition of a well balanced adult but what of harms that go beyond the individual adult? 

The idea of harm is very slippery.  There may be listeners who are not well balanced adults.  A child or the mentally ill may be thrown into emotional turmoil by words but this may reflect a failure in the training of the child or patient as much as the power of words.  If protection is given to the sensitive then where should the line be drawn between the sensitive and robust?  What of the business that is damaged by slander? How far should businesses be protected?  What of the nation that is damaged by half-truths? Should the nation be protected?

The problem of harm seems complicated but the answers are fairly simple.  Children under the age of 13 should be protected by their guardians from exposure to harmful speech.  Children from 13 to 18 should be supportively weened by their guardians onto adult themes.  The State should support guardians in this parenting.   The highly sensitive adult might be trained to avoid difficult situations.   Business can endure real loss from lies so should be protected by the law that deals with slander.  The State can set up an academic process with checks and balances that publishes a balanced description of important issues. (This was once an intended purpose of the BBC).

Harm is also affected by the place where free speech occurs.  Small groups of adults in private can speak freely unless they are plotting to break a law that is not about speech (robbing banks, paedophilia, arson, undermining legitimate business etc.).  Speaking in public to large numbers of people  should be limited by the support given to guardians if children can hear and by laws about harassment in the workplace.

Publishing on the Internet

Free speech differs from the freedom to publish written works and presentations on digital devices or paper.   The written word can be permanent and can potentially reach a wide audience.  The biggest difference between written words and verbal speech is that there is no control over who reads the written word. 

Written works and presentations on storage media were controlled by the laws that controlled publishing until the arrival of the Internet.  However, in the 1990s the USA exempted Internet publishers that acted as "platforms" from the legislation on publishing and the rest of the world followed.  This was akin to a book publisher discovering an ultra cheap way of producing pamphlets and showering the world with them whilst being relieved of any responsibility for their content.

The problems of Internet publishing were created by government.  Legislators regarded the Internet as a minor event until well into the twenty first century. 

Some Internet applications such as online gambling are known to be addictive and destructive and others are strongly suspected of causing serious and widespread mental health issues, from addiction to depression.  These should be banned. However, this is a separate issue from freedom of speech and publication.

The following measures are essential to bring the Internet into line with previous legislation for Freedom of Expression.

First, and most important, each country should have a National Internet Firewall.  This is of such importance that it is astonishing that most Western nations have failed to do it.  We run banking, retail sales and even the control of major computing and power generating installations over the Internet yet leave these exposed to fraudsters and hackers from around the globe.  Criminals and saboteurs, pornographers and paedophiles from beyond our jurisdiction are given free access to our infrastructure. A Firewall is essential.

Secondly each Internet user should be given an extra age verified password by the Internet Service provider.  A similar password is already provided for home Internet users (it is usually stuck to your "router") and it should also be needed for smart phones.  Adult Internet services should require the entry of the password.

Thirdly the Internet should be divided into adult and child publishing.  Children under 18 should be excluded from social media.  Foreign Internet publishers would be obliged to follow UK rules to gain access to the UK Internet or be blocked by the National Firewall.

Fourthly Internet search engines such as Google, which tilt results to target users, should be subject to a code of practice and inspection to prevent biased results.

Fifthly social media publishers such as Instagram, Facebook, Tik-Tok, Youtube etc. should be unable to supply targeted advertising of posts, services or products to users.  Users would either receive generic adverts or would need to search for content or posts themselves.

Lastly public debate and discussion publishers such as Twitter should be for adults only, controlled at the level of Free Speech rather than as publishers and prevented from shadow banning (no platforming) legal contributions.  Anonymous users should be permitted on debating platforms but not bots.

Hate Crimes

The introduction of speech related "Hate Crimes" is a major attack on freedom of expression.  The freedom to dislike a group of people is a reasonable freedom.  As an example we might dislike communists because they have probably murdered more people than any other ideology and dislike national socialists because they are runners up in the competition for most evil ideology by body count.  Disliking people because of their race is another freedom that is not always "wrong" or "evil".  I knew a man who had been a Japanese prisoner of war and would not be in the same room as a Japanese person.  He explained that all of his guards were evil, all of them. 

Once "Hate Crimes" are accepted it becomes difficult to raise the problem of groups of people who are deliberately sabotaging society, such as is probable in the case of members of "Confucius Institutes". 

Disliking people simply because of their race is actually rare and usually emanates from underlying political issues such as a perceived damage to local culture, perceived narrowing of employment opportunities etc. and these need to be discussed.  In the UK this discussion is silenced at a national level because of the possibility of "Hate Crimes" being committed or encouraged.

Most importantly, "Hate Crime" removes the idea of robust adults and replaces it with a population of victims who must be protected by the State.  As pointed out above, the laws that deal with harassment, slander and guardianship, especially those that support guardianship, should be adequate to protect people in a democracy. 

No Platforming

"No platforming" occurs where a public organisation such as an "impartial" media source or a university etc. prevents the airing of views that they dislike.

No platforming is used by mainstream media, such as the BBC, on a daily basis.  They must report truthfully so they report half the truth and "no platform" the rest.   In the case of the BBC this could be stopped if Ofcom were to take its responsibilities seriously.  No platforming is also a serious problem with organisations such as "Full Fact" which generally only examine disinformation and lies emanating from organisations and ideologies that they dislike.

No platforming is unacceptable in publicly funded universities.

No platforming/shadow banning/ejecting users was used by Twitter against conservatives in the USA and against the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum.  The then CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, made no secret of his contempt for conservatives and people who wanted to leave the EU.  This should be unacceptable in a product that is exempted from the full publishing regulations and touted as a public debating platform.


Conclusion

I fear that the government and MPs are excessively influenced by Microsoft, Twitter etc. and prone to viewing the adult population as a group of potential victims rather than freeborn adults.  Born free, not handed out "Rights".  I also fear that the Internet is seen as something bigger than all of us rather than as a technology for information, publishing, banking, purchasing and controlling devices.  It is a technology.  We must control it with firewalls and through the law and not let it control us.


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