Freedom of expression and thought in the age of the Internet

Muhammad Zamir | Published: November 17, 2019 21:39:12 | Updated: November 25, 2019 20:45:17

Pope Francis is given a newborn baby to bless as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. -AP Photo

Analyst Jo Glanville has interestingly observed that "the Internet has been a revolution for censorship as much as for free speech". This assumes importance given the fact that international, national and regional standards recognise that freedom of speech, as one form of freedom of expression, applies to any medium, including the Internet. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 was the first major attempt by the US Congress to regulate pornographic material on the Internet. In 1997, in the landmark cyber law case of Reno v. ACLU, the US Supreme Court partially overturned the law.

 Judge Stewart R. Dalzell one of the three federal judges who in June 1996 declared parts of the CDA unconstitutional, in his opinion stated the following: "the Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green or the mails. Because it would necessarily affect the Internet itself, the CDA would necessarily reduce the speech available for adults on the medium. This is a constitutionally intolerable result. Some of the dialogue on the Internet surely tests the limits of conventional discourse. Speech on the Internet can be unfiltered, unpolished, and unconventional, even emotionally charged, sexually explicit, and vulgar - in a word, 'indecent' in many communities. But we should expect such speech to occur in a medium in which citizens from all walks of life have a voice. We should also protect the autonomy that such a medium confers to ordinary people as well as media magnates. My analysis does not deprive the Government of all means of protecting children from the dangers of Internet communication. The Government can continue to protect children from pornography on the Internet through vigorous enforcement of existing laws criminalising obscenity and child pornography.  As we learned at the hearing, there is also a compelling need for public education about the benefits and dangers of this new medium, and the Government can fill that role as well. In my view, our action today should only mean that Government's permissible supervision of Internet contents stops at the traditional line of unprotected speech. The absence of governmental regulation of Internet content has unquestionably produced a kind of chaos, but as one of the plaintiff's experts put it with such resonance at the hearing: 'What achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is chaos.' Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so that strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects."

 In this context it would be important to note the observations made by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in its Declaration of Principles adopted in 2003. It made specific reference to the importance of the right to freedom of expression for the "Information Society" by stating: "we reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organisations. It is also central to the Information Society. Everyone everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers."

Analysts believe that freedom of information is an extension of freedom of speech where the medium of expression is the Internet. There is also general consensus that freedom of information may also refer to the right to privacy in the context of the Internet and information technology. As with the right to freedom of expression, the right to privacy is consequently recognised as a human right and freedom of information is accepted as an extension to this right. Freedom of information however is also seen as being able to, in an information technology context, to access Web content, without censorship or restrictions. Such a potential protection of freedom of information is explicitly protected by acts such as the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act of Ontario, in Canada.

The evolving dynamics pertaining to the concept of freedom of information has also partially emerged in response to state-sponsored censorship, monitoring and surveillance of the Internet. Internet censorship includes the control or suppression of the publishing or accessing of information on the Internet. According to  Reporters without Borders (RWB), the following states engage in pervasive internet censorship: China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar/Burma, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

In this regard a widely publicised example of Internet censorship is identified as the Great Firewall of China (in reference both to its role as a network firewall). It is claimed that this system blocks content by preventing IP (Internet Protocol) addresses from being routed through and consists of standard firewall and proxy servers at the internet gateways. The system also selectively engages in DNS (Domain Name System) poisoning when particular sites are requested. Internet censorship in China and Russia are conducted under a wide variety of laws and administrative regulations, including more than 60 regulations directed at the Internet. Censorship systems are vigorously implemented by provincial branches of state-owned ISPs (Internet Service Providers), business companies, and organisations.

ENGLISH THINKERS: In Areopagitica, published without a license, Milton made an impassioned plea for freedom of expression and toleration of falsehood, stating: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."

Subsequently, a succession of English thinkers surfaced at the forefront of early discussion on a right to freedom of expression. Among them was John Locke (1632-1704). He established the individual as the unit of value and the bearer of rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. However Locke's ideas evolved primarily around the concept of the right to seek salvation for one's soul and were thus primarily concerned with theological matters. Locke neither supported a universal toleration of people nor freedom of speech. This included his open lack of support for atheists.

John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873) later argued that without human freedom there can be no progress in science, law or politics, which according to Mill required free discussion of opinion. Mill's "On Liberty", published in 1859, became a classic defence of the right to freedom of expression. Mill argued that truth drives out falsity, therefore the free expression of ideas, true or false, should not be feared. Mill believed that much of what we once considered true might later turn out to be false. Therefore, views should not be prohibited for their apparent falsity. Mill also argued that free discussion was necessary to prevent the "deep slumber of a decided opinion". Discussion, according to him, would drive the onward march of truth. Furthermore, Mill argued that an opinion carried intrinsic value to the owner of that opinion. Consequently, silencing the expression of that opinion was an injustice to a basic human right.

George Orwell, a defender of free speech in an open society also stated in his proposed preface to Animal Farm (1945) - "if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear".

FREEDOM OF THOUGHT, FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: Before concluding one also needs to refer to freedom of thought - also called freedom of conscience or ideas. This is the freedom of an individual to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, independent of others' viewpoints. It is different from and not to be confused with the concept of freedom of speech or expression.

Freedom of thought, it may be noted, is considered as the precursor and progenitor of - and thus is closely linked to - other liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Though freedom of thought is axiomatic for many other freedoms they are in no way required for it to operate and exist.

INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW: In the Western world nearly all democratic constitutions protect these freedoms. For example, the US Bill of Rights contains the famous guarantee in the First Amendment that laws may not be made that interfere with religion "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". This point of view holds that freedom of thought is the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.

The aforesaid ideas are also a vital part of international human rights law. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), legally binding on memberstates of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), "freedom of thought" is listed under Article 18: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The UN Human Rights Committee has accordingly observed that this, "distinguishes the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief from the freedom to manifest religion or belief. It does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom of thought and conscience or on the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one's choice. These freedoms are protected unconditionally." Similarly, Article 19 of the UDHR guarantees that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference".

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.


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