Internet Censorship: Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

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by Sayer Ji, Green Med Info:

It used to be a truth universally acknowledged by citizens of democratic nations that freedom of speech was the basis not just of democracy, but of all human rights.

When a person or group can censor the speech of others, there is – by definition – an imbalance of power. Those exercising the power can decide what information and which opinions are allowed, and which should be suppressed. In order to maintain their power, they will naturally suppress information and views that challenge their position.

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Free speech is the only peaceful way to hold those in power accountable, challenge potentially harmful policies, and expose corruption. Those of us privileged to live in democracies instinctively understand this nearly sacred value of free speech in maintaining our free and open societies.

Or do we?

Alarmingly, it seems like many people in what we call democratic nations are losing that understanding. And they seem willing to cede their freedom of speech to governments, organizations, and Big Tech companies who, supposedly, need to control the flow of information to keep everyone “safe.”

The locus for the disturbing shift away from free speech is the 21st-century’s global public square: the Internet. And the proclaimed reasons for allowing those in power to diminish our free speech on the Internet are: “disinformation” and “hate speech.”

In this article, I will review the three-step process by which anti-disinformation laws are introduced. Then, I will review some of the laws being rolled out in multiple countries almost simultaneously, and what such laws entail in terms of vastly increasing the potential for censorship of the global flow of information.

How to Pass Censorship Laws

Step 1: Declare an existential threat to democracy and human rights 

Step 2: Assert that the solution will protect democracy and human rights

Step 3: Enact anti-democratic, anti-human rights censorship fast and in unison

Lies, propaganda, “deep fakes,” and all manner of misleading information have always been present on the Internet. The vast global information hub that is the World Wide Web inevitably provides opportunities for criminals and other nefarious actors, including child sex traffickers and evil dictators.

At the same time, the Internet has become the central locus of open discourse for the world’s population, democratizing access to information and the ability to publish one’s views to a global audience.

The good and bad on the Internet reflect the good and bad in the real world. And when we regulate the flow of information on the Internet, the same careful balance between blocking truly dangerous actors, while retaining maximum freedom and democracy, must apply.

Distressingly, the recent slew of laws governing Internet information are significantly skewed in the direction of limiting free speech and increasing censorship. The reason, the regulators claim, is that fake news, disinformation, and hate speech are existential threats to democracy and human rights.

Here are examples of dire warnings, issued by leading international organizations, about catastrophic threats to our very existence purportedly posed by disinformation:

Propaganda, misinformation and fake news have the potential to polarise public opinion, to promote violent extremism and hate speech and, ultimately, to undermine democracies and reduce trust in the democratic processes. Council of Europe

The world must address the grave global harm caused by the proliferation of hate and lies in the digital space.-United Nations

Online hate speech and disinformation have long incited violence, and sometimes mass atrocities.  –World Economic Forum (WEF)/The New Humanitarian

Considering the existential peril of disinformation and hate speech, these same groups assert that any solution will obviously promote the opposite:

Given such a global threat, we clearly need a global solution. And, of course, such a solution will increase democracy, protect the rights of vulnerable populations, and respect human rights. WEF

Moreover, beyond a mere assertion that increasing democracy and respecting human rights are built into combating disinformation, international law must be invoked.

In its Common Agenda Policy Brief from June 2023, Information Integrity on Digital Platforms, the UN details the international legal framework for efforts to counter hate speech and disinformation.

First, it reminds us that freedom of expression and information are fundamental human rights:

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 19 (2) of the Covenant protect the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, and through any media. 

Linked to freedom of expression, freedom of information is itself a right. The General Assembly has stated: “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” (p. 9)

Then, the UN brief explains that disinformation and hate speech are such colossal, all-encompassing evils that their very existence is antithetical to the enjoyment of any human rights:

Hate speech has been a precursor to atrocity crimes, including genocide. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide prohibits “direct and public incitement to commit genocide”. 

In its resolution 76/227, adopted in 2021, the General Assembly emphasized that all forms of disinformation can negatively impact the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, in its resolution 49/21, adopted in 2022, the Human Rights Council affirmed that disinformation can negatively affect the enjoyment and realization of all human rights.

This convoluted maze of legalese leads to an absurd, self-contradictory sequence of illogic:

  • Everything the UN is supposed to protect is founded on the freedom of information, which along with free speech is a fundamental human right.
  • The UN believes hate speech and disinformation destroy all human rights.
  • THEREFORE, anything we do to combat hate speech and disinformation protects all human rights, even if it abrogates the fundamental human rights of free speech and information, on which all other rights depend.
  • Because: genocide!

In practice, what this means is that, although the UN at one point in its history considered the freedom of speech and information fundamental to all other rights, it now believes the dangers of hate speech and disinformation eclipse the importance of protecting those rights.

The same warping of democratic values, as delineated by our international governing body, is now occurring in democracies the world over.

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