In trying to protect us online, legislators risk silencing us

I regularly start my weekly blog with the exclamation “there is just too much news!” Too much horror and heartbreak and this week the assertion is all too true.

Russia has invaded a sovereign country and daily we are seeing evidence of war crimes on the continent of Europe; China is arresting yet more democracy activists on the flimsiest of excuses; there have been bombings targeting schools in Afghanistan; a neo-fascist is, yet again, in the final run-off in the French Presidential elections; there are riots in Sweden against the far-right with dozens hurt; people are starving in Shanghai under Covid-19 restrictions; there is active conflict again in Jerusalem, with over 150 Palestinians hurt in clashes after a series of terror attacks targeting Israelis in recent weeks; another video of a black man being fatally shot by the police has emerged in the US – Patrick Lyoya was killed, while being held on the ground, defenceless, on 14 April and riots have followed in Michigan.

Our team at Index is working on every one of these news stories. We work with people on the ground, and we commission dissidents and writers, in country, to give us a first-hand account. In the twenty-first century we can speak to people in every corner of the globe, as events are happening, because of the internet and the social media platforms which afford us all a level of protection because of end-to-end encryption. We work with people on the ground who would be arrested, tortured, or even killed because they want to share their experiences with the world. They want the world to know what is happening to them and to their communities. They are on the frontline in the perpetual fight for our democratic right to freedom of expression. They are vulnerable because of who they are and what they want to share with us, whether that’s their writings, their opinions or their art.

They are brave and inspirational and determined to stand up for what is right. For as long as they want to tell their stories there is a moral onus for us to listen to them.

Which brings me to the current proposals to regulate our online lives currently being progressed in the European Union and in the United Kingdom. In Europe, today (Friday) the final negotiations on the substance of the Digital Services Act are underway and, in the UK, the Online Safety Bill began its parliamentary journey on Tuesday.  Index is working actively with partners to try and mitigate the worst aspects of both pieces of legislation and we were in Brussels this week to make the case for additional protections for freedom of speech. Our overriding goal is to make sure that our access to those brave dissidents is protected and that our rights to discuss the detail of these horrors are protected. To make sure that while legislators are trying to ‘protect’ us online they don’t end up inadvertently silencing us.

Index advocates for free expression within the protections afforded to us by the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no right not be offended. There is no right not to see things online, or in real life, that will upset you. Of course, we all want to protect each other from seeing the worst aspects of human life – that’s an admirable aspiration but it isn’t the grounds for making new law. In fact, it’s the exact opposite – legally we have protected freedom of expression, it’s a fundamental right. I have written before about our concerns regarding online regulation and in the coming months I’ll be writing extensively on it – but we start with the basic principle – what is legal to say should be legal to type. And that should be the case whatever any new legislation seeks to amend.

The Queen’s Speech is a systematic assault on free expression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116759″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]As a political obsessive, I love the Queen’s Speech in the British Parliament. It marks the beginning of the new parliamentary session. It is uniquely British with all the expected pomp and ceremony and a significant amount of pageantry. But most importantly it is a restatement of our democratic values and processes. It also sets the agenda for the year ahead and makes clear what the Government is prioritising. And unfortunately, this year there were significant concerns for those of us who care about free speech.

The Queen outlined the government’s agenda and on the face of it who could object to an Online Safety Bill or a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill or even a Counter State Threats Bill. But, as ever, the devil is in the detail and the detail for too many of the British government’s proposals seems to have many, what I can only hope are unintended, consequences.

The draft Online Safety Bill proposes not only the establishment of a new category of unlawful speech in the UK – legal but harmful – but it also proposes outsourcing the regulation of free speech in the UK to Silicon Valley. Most concerningly there is no provision outlined which will let us know how much content has been removed – or even what has been removed. On the face of it, that might not seem that important but how would a victim know if they were vulnerable?  How will police prosecute hate crime? And how we will be able to analyse how much of a threat to free speech this bill has become, if we have no idea of how much is deleted. The Government has suggested that they will fine companies for deleting too much content but there is no provision outlined which would allow them to assess the scale.

The Academic Freedom Bill will establish a ‘free speech champion’ to ensure that free speech protections are enacted on campus, but this week the Government couldn’t answer whether this would empower Holocaust deniers to speak on campus – or stop them. What’s likely to happen instead is that academic institutions will be so concerned about the fear of a fine or bad publicity that they will stop speakers attending campus full stop – the ultimate chilling effect.

These are just two examples of why Index has such significant concerns of the direction that government is taking on free speech.

To be clear, Index supports any and all efforts to protect our collective right to free speech across the globe and we expect the British government to take a global leadership role in defending Article 19. But what we’ve seen in this year’s Queen’s Speech does not give us hope – rather it seems to be a systematic assault on free expression by the British government, under the auspices of protecting free speech.

I am a former legislator; I know that you cannot, and you should not try to legislate culture or language – it will have the opposite effect. People won’t want to engage and our public spaces will become free of debate and challenge. We deserve so much better. Going forward we will seek to work with the British government to introduce additional protections for free speech, we must use our voice to protect yours.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Content bans won’t just eliminate “bad” speech online

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Social media platforms have enormous influence over what we see and how we see it.

We should all be concerned about the knee-jerk actions taken by the platforms to limit legal speech and approach with extreme caution any solutions that suggest it’s somehow easy to eliminate only “bad” speech.

Those supporting the removal of videos that “justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status” might want to pause to consider that it isn’t just content about conspiracy theories or white supremacy that will be removed.

In the wake of YouTube’s announcement on Wednesday 5 June, independent journalist Ford Fischer tweeted that some of his videos, which report on activism and extremism, had been flagged by the service for violations. Teacher Scott Allsopp had his channel featuring hundreds of historical clips deleted for breaching the rules that ban hate speech, though it was later restored with some videos still flagged.

It’s not just Google’s YouTube that has tripped over the inconsistent policing of speech online.

Twitter has removed tweets for violating its community standards as in the case of US high school teacher and activist Carolyn Wysinger, whose post in response to actor Liam Neeson saying he’d roamed the streets hunting for black men to harm, was deleted by the platform. “White men are so fragile,” the post read, “and the mere presence of a black person challenges every single thing in them.”

In the UK, gender critical feminists who have quoted academic research on sex and gender identity have had their Twitter accounts suspended for breaching the organisation’s hateful conduct policy, while threats of violence towards women often go unpunished.

Facebook, too, has suspended the pages of organisations that have posted about racist behaviours.

If we are to ensure that all our speech is protected, including speech that calls out others for engaging in hateful conduct, then social media companies’ policies and procedures need to be clear, accountable and non-partisan. Any decisions to limit content should be taken by, and tested by, human beings. Algorithms simply cannot parse the context and nuance sufficiently to distinguish, say, racist speech from anti-racist speech.

We need to tread carefully. While an individual who incites violence towards others should not (and does not) enjoy the protection of the law, on any platform, or on any kind of media, tackling those who advocate hate cannot be solved by simply banning them.

In the drive to stem the tide of hateful speech online, we should not rush to welcome an ever-widening definition of speech to be banned by social media.

This means we – as users – might have to tolerate conspiracy theories, the offensive and the idiotic, as long as it does not incite violence. That doesn’t mean we can’t challenge them. And we should.

But the ability to express contrary points of view, to call out racism, to demand retraction and to highlight obvious hypocrisy depend on the ability to freely share information.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1560160119940-326df768-f230-4″ taxonomies=”4883″][/vc_column][/vc_row]