Future of freedom of expression online does not have to be a dark one

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”107886″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]David Kaye’s legal career began a decade before the rise of modern social media. Yet Kaye, a professor of international human rights law at the University of California, Berkeley and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, has had to adapt his legal practice to the complex ways in which the internet can be used to prohibit us from — and in some cases, empower us to — freely share information and opinions. 

Kaye spoke to presenter, writer and comedian Timandra Harkness on 9 July to promote his recent book on regulating online freedom of expression, Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet. 

To begin the conversation, Harkness asked Kaye to briefly overview some of the threats he perceived to free expression online, and how he thought that international human rights law was applicable to the current debate over what content, if any, to censor online. Kaye explained that the language of human rights law, particularly article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, seemed designed for the digital age despite being penned in the 1940s. 

He also discussed how changes to the internet have affected governments and corporations ability to regulate content. The decentralised, “blogosphere”-style internet of the early years of Kaye’s career was much harder to regulate than the current internet, in which a few large companies provide massive platforms where large percentages of internet discourse and information sharing take place. “Without necessarily acting as censors … those companies [now] determine the boundaries of what we see online,” Kaye said. 

That boundary, unfortunately, is increasingly defined by algorithms rather than people. It is always valuable to know “what is feeding the algorithm,” Kaye explained. The reason that algorithms for most social media companies function the way they do is that “they are algorithms for engagement … [that’s a] problem with the business model.” Rather than filling news feeds with the most important news, algorithms are designed to maximize engagement, sometimes at the detriment of providing users with a diversity of information. This raises questions as to the ability of social media companies to maximize free access to information. 

For people living under repressive regimes, however, internal social media regulation may be preferable to allowing the government to regulate and censor speech as it often does in traditional media, Kaye argued. Yet at the same time, social media companies have “entrenched interests” that influence the way that they regulate speech, which can be murkier than those of the government and far more arbitrary. Kaye specifically mentioned the case of Germany, which prohibits speech about Holocaust denial. In that case, Kaye argued, the German government might ask that Facebook take down any content promoting Holocaust denial, but also implicitly gives Facebook the ability to determine what content actually constitutes Holocaust denial rather than leaving the decision to a German court.

This “essentially asks those companies to determine what is legal under those countries’ laws, outsourcing the decision” to media platforms to be enforced in difficult-to-verify ways, Kaye noted.

Another concern Kaye expressed for the confluence of government censorship and internal social media company decisions was about terms of service. “[terms of service] go beyond what governments can regulate in law,” he added. Since terms of service can censor what many governments legally cannot, it is impossible to know how often governments manipulate the terms of service to suppress speech that is legal but inconvenient. That, said Kaye, is “itself a kind of government censorship.”

Kaye ended by speaking about the rule of law, which he viewed as a way to counteract some of the unregulated content moderation that happens on social media sites. “I think we have missed an opportunity for countries that have strong rule-of-law traditions that could have thought more creatively about regulating [social media],” he said. Kaye continued that, pessimistically, we now don’t know whether countries with rule-of-law traditions will treat social media with a “rule-of-law framework.”

The future of freedom of expression online does not have to be a dark one. Rule-of-law countries should “model what they want freedom of expression to look like in the future,” he concluded. It is up to countries like the UK, he argued, to set an example for the future of free expression regulation of the online platforms that will define the free speech debates of the 21st century. [/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1562928954931-7373ff6c-362f-3″ taxonomies=”16927, 4883″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

STOP! It’s the Speech Police…

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”107412″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]In the 15 years since the advent of Facebook, social media has become theway we communicate with one another online. It’s a space where revolutions and romances start but also where hate and anger bubble.

Who decides what content remains or is removed is one of the key challenges of our age. Should social media giants police content or should governments regulate expression online? How do we challenge their decisions?

Join us for an evening with one of the leading thinkers on this issue – UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye – as he marks the the UK launch of his new book Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet.

Kaye will be in conversation with presenter, comedian and data geek Timandra Harkness.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”107415″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]David Kaye is the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protectin of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the global body’s principal monitor for freedom of expression issues worldwide. He is also clinical professor of law and director of the International Justice Clinic at the University of California, Irvine.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”107416″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Timandra Harkness is a presenter, writer and comedian who hosts the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? was published in June 2016. She will be appearing in a new solo comedy show at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Take A Risk.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”60288″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.article19.org/”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”102960″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”107417″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.wayra.co.uk/”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”85975″][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_column_text]

Special thanks to Wayra for hosting and to our friends at Flying Dog Brewery for donating the beer for this event.


When: Tuesday 9 July 2019 18:30 – 20:30 BST
Where: Wayra, 20 Air Street London W1B 5AN
Tickets: Free. Registration required via Eventbrite


David Kaye: The other travel ban

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”96621″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Governments have arsenals of weapons to censor information. The worst are well-known: detention, torture, extra-judicial (and sometimes court-sanctioned) killing, surveillance. Though governments also have access to less forceful but still insidious tools, such as website blocking and internet filtering, these aim to cut off the flow of information and advocacy at the source.

Another form of censorship gets limited attention, a kind of quiet repression: the travel ban. It’s the Trump travel ban in reverse, where governments exit rather than entry. They do so not merely to punish the banned but to deny the spread of information about the state of repression and corruption in their home countries.

In recent days I have heard from people around the world subject to such bans. Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist in Azerbaijan who has exposed high-level corruption, has suffered for years under fraudulent legal cases brought against her, including time in prison. The government now forbids her to travel. As she put it last year: “Corrupt officials of Azerbaijan, predators of the press and human rights are still allowed in high-level forums in democracies and able to speak about values, which they destroy in their own – our own country.”

Zunar, a well-known cartoonist who has long pilloried the leaders of Malaysia, has been subject to a travel ban since mid-2016, while also facing sedition charges for the content of his sharply dissenting art. While awaiting his preposterous trial, which could leave him with years in prison, he has missed exhibitions, public forums, high-profile talks. As he told me, the ban directly undermines his ability to network, share ideas, and build financial support.

Ismayilova and Zunar are not alone. India has imposed a travel ban against the coordinator of a civil society coalition in Kashmir because of “anti-India activities” which, the government alleges, are meant to cause youth to resort to violent protest. Turkey has aggressively confiscated passports to target journalists, academics, civil servants, and school teachers. China has barred a women’s human rights defender from travelling outside even her town in Tibet.

Bahrain confiscated the passport of one activist who, upon her return from a Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, was accused by officials of “false statements” about Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates has held Ahmed Mansoor, a leading human rights defender and blogger and familiar to those in the UN human rights system, incommunicado for nearly this entire year. The government banned him from travelling for years based on his advocacy for democratic reform.

Few governments, apart from Turkey perhaps, can compete with Egypt on this front. I asked Gamal Eid, subject to a travel ban by Egyptian authorities since February of 2016, how it affects his life and work? Eid, one of the leading human rights defenders in the Middle East and the founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), has seen his organisation’s website shut down, public libraries he founded (with human rights award money!) forcibly closed, and his bank accounts frozen.

While Eid is recognised internationally for his commitment to human rights, the government accuses him of raising philanthropic funds for ANHRI “to implement a foreign agenda aimed at inciting public opinion against State institutions and promoting allegations in international forums that freedoms are restricted by the country’s legislative system.” He has been separated from his wife and daughter, who fled Egypt in the face of government threats. The ban forced him to close legal offices in Morocco and Tunisia, where he provided defence to journalists, and he lost his green card to work in the United States. He recognises that his situation does not involve the kind of torture or detention that characterises Egypt’s approach to opposition, but the ban has ruined his ability to make a living and to support human rights not just in Egypt but across the Arab world.

Eid is not alone in his country. He estimates that Egypt has placed approximately 500 of its nationals under a travel ban, about sixteen of whom are human rights activists. One of them is the prominent researcher and activist, Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who faces accusations similar to Eid’s.

Travel bans signal weakness, limited confidence in the power of a government’s arguments, perhaps even a public but quiet concession that, “yes indeed, we repress truth in our country”. While not nearly as painful as the physical weapons of censorship, they undermine global knowledge and debate. They exclude activists and journalists from the kind of training that makes their work more rigorous, accurate, and effective. They also interfere in a direct way with every person’s human right to “leave any country, including one’s own,” unless necessary for reasons such as national security or public order.

All governments that care about human rights should not allow the travel ban to continue to be the silent weapon of censorship – and not just for the sake of Khadija, Zunar, and Gamal, but for those who benefit from their critical voices and work. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Mapping Media Freedom” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-times-circle” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Index on Censorship monitors press freedom in 42 European countries.

Since 24 May 2014, Mapping Media Freedom’s team of correspondents and partners have recorded and verified 3,597 violations against journalists and media outlets.

Index campaigns to protect journalists and media freedom. You can help us by submitting reports to Mapping Media Freedom.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook) and we’ll send you our weekly newsletter about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share your personal information with anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Japanese government cancels visit from UN free speech representative

David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

The UN’s principal global monitor of freedom of expression, David Kaye, was due to visit Japan between 1 and 8 December. In mid-November, the Japanese government cancelled the trip.

Kaye said of the cancellation: “The Japanese government indicated that relevant interlocutors would be preoccupied with the budget process. That was disappointing to hear, particularly since we had been organising a broad set of meetings with officials, civil society, academic experts, journalists and others.”

During the visit, Kaye planned to address basic aspects of freedom of expression, including the public’s right to access information, the freedom and protection of independent media, online rights and restrictions on marginalised communities.

He told Index: “We would have highlighted what appear to be some very positive aspects of the freedoms Japanese people enjoy online, for instance, and we would have also raised questions about the Act on Specially Designated Secrets and concerns we’ve been seeing related to pressures on the media.”

The Act on Specially Designated Secrets was implemented in 2013, offering protection to state secrets and tightening penalties on leaking intelligence. The Human Rights Committee has expressed concerns about the act, stating it contained a “vague and broad definition of the matters that can be classified as secret and general preconditions for classification and sets high criminal penalties that could generate a chilling effect on the activities of journalists and human rights defenders”.

“We have studied the Act and wanted to ask officials about the interpretation of some provisions and implementation of the Act overall,” Kaye said. “For instance, we have heard numerous concerns about the way in which the Act may implicate the public’s access to information, the way in which it may punish whistleblowers, the barriers it may set up to a free media seeking information of public interest.”

Had the visit gone ahead, Kaye said he would have come with questions, addressed them to Japanese officials and non-government actors, and the UN would have published the findings.

The cancellation of the visit does raise concerns over Japan’s commitment to freedom of expression, but Kaye remains optimistic. “My hope is that the Japanese government is indeed committed and will reschedule the visit at the earliest opportunity, rather than late 2016, as they have suggested.”