Last week the Federal Communications Commission of the United States voted to remove the current regulations on network neutrality. This means internet service providers (ISPs) would be permitted to limit, block or give preferential treatment to different kinds of internet traffic. This has huge implications for freedom of expression online.
“The decision means ISPs could now simply favour the sites whose political views they agree with, and put smaller players – without the money to buy better access – out of business. Internet users should be able to access the legal content they want – not have their choices dictated by the whim of major corporations,” said Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg.
It is vital that Americans lobby their members of Congress to press it to use the Congressional Review Act to undo the FCC’s decision and that the international community affirms its commitment to a fair and open internet.
Timothy Garton Ash is no stranger to censorship. On the toilet wall of his Oxford home, there is a Polish censor’s verdict from early 1989 which cut a great chunk of text from an article of his on the bankruptcy of Soviet socialism.
Six months later socialism was indeed bankrupt, although the formative experiences of travelling behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s — seeing friends such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn interrogated and locked up for what they published — never left him.
“The future of free speech is a decisive question for how we live together in a mixed up world where conventionally — because of mass migration and the internet — we are all becoming neighbours,” Garton Ash explains to Index on Censorship. “The book reflects a lot of the debates we’ve already been having on the Free Speech Debate website [the precursor to the book] as well as physically in places like India China, Egypt, Burma, Thailand, where I’ve personally gone to take forward these debates.”
Garton Ash began writing the book 10 years ago, shortly after the murder of Theo van Gough and the publication of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. In the second of the 10 principles of free speech — ranked in order of importance — he writes: “We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.” What he calls the “assassin’s veto” — violence or the threat of violence as a response to expression — is, he tells Index, “one of the greatest threats to free speech in our time because it undoubtedly has a very wide chilling effect”.
While the veto may bring to mind the January 2015 killings at Charlie Hebdo, Garton Ash is quick to point out that “while a lot of these threats do come from violent Islamists, they also come from the Italian mafia, Hindu nationalists in India and many other groups”.
Europe, in particular, has “had far too much yielding, or often pre-emptively, to the threat of violence and intimidation”, explains Garton Ash, including the 2014 shutting down of Exhibit B, an art exhibition which featured black performers in chains, after protesters deemed it racist. “My view is that this is extremely worrying and we really have to hold the line,” he adds.
Similarly, in the sixth principle from the book — “one of the most controversial” — Garton Ash states: “We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.”
This principle makes the same point the philosopher Stephen Darwall made between “recognition respect” and “appraisal respect”. “Recognition respect is ‘I unconditionally respect your full dignity, equal human dignity and rights as an individual, as a believer including your right to hold that belief’,” explains Garton Ash. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean I have to give ‘appraisal respect’ to the content of your belief, which I may find to be, with some reason, incoherent nonsense.”
The best and many times only weapon we have against “incoherent nonsense” is knowledge (principle three: We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge). In Garton Ash’s view, there are two worrying developments in the field of knowledge in which taboos result in free speech being edged away.
“On the one hand, the government, with its extremely problematic counter-terror legislation, is trying to impose a prevent duty to disallow even non-violent extremism,” he says. “Non-violent extremists, in my view, include Karl Marx and Jesus Christ; some of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind were non-violent extremists.”
“On the other hand, you have student-led demands of no platforming, safe spaces, trigger warnings and so on,” Garton Ash adds, referring to the rising trend on campuses of shutting down speech deemed offensive. “Universities should be places of maximum free speech because one of the core arguments for free speech is it helps you to seek out the truth.”
The title of the books mentions the “connected world”, or what is also referred to in the text as “cosmopolis”, a global space that is both geographic and virtual. In the ninth principle, “We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers”, Garton Ash aims to protect free expression in this online realm.
“We’ve never been in a world like this before, where if something dreadful happens in Iceland it ends up causing harm in Singapore, or vice-versa,” he says. “With regards to the internet, you have to distinguish online governance from regulation and keep the basic architecture of the internet free, and that means — where possible — net neutrality.”
A book authored by a westerner in an “increasingly post-western” world clearly has its work cut out for it to convince people in non-western or partially-western countries, Garton Ash admits. “What we can’t do and shouldn’t do is what the West tended to do in the 1990s, and say ‘hey world, we’ve worked it out — we have all the answers’ and simply get out the kit of liberal democracy and free speech like something from Ikea,” he says. “If you go in there just preaching and lecturing, immediately the barriers go up and out comes postcolonial resistance.”
“But what we can do — and I try to do in the book — is to move forward a conversation about how it should be, and having looked at their own traditions, you will find people are quite keen to have the conversation because they’re trying to work it out themselves.”
Index on Censorship joins the net neutrality coalition, a global coalition of organisations and users who believe that the open internet has enabled countless advances in technology, health, education and business, and that it must remain open for all.
Today, the open internet is endangered by powerful service providers seeking to become gatekeepers who decide how users can access part of the internet.
We believe that we have to enshrine net neutrality into law so that the internet remains a platform for free expression and innovation.
“A free and open internet is vital for free expression,” said Index Chief Executive Jodie Ginsberg. “We must defend net neutrality to ensure everyone has equal access to the channels that have become crucial to so much of modern information exchange.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo: AAP Images via Demotix)
The US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech before the fourth annual Freedom Online Coalition conference has all the makings of anti-censorship agitprop. “The places where we face some of the greatest security challenges today are also the places where governments set up firewalls against the basic freedoms online.”
Indeed, like his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, he has taken to banging the drum of internet freedom as if it is a transforming given of modern life. On January 21, 2010, Clinton made the remark at America’s “interactive museum of news” otherwise called Newseum, that “information freedom supports the peace and security that provide a foundation for global progress.”
As the Belarussian writer and researcher Evgeny Morozov put so eloquently in The Net Delusion, such sentiments promote two delusionary sentiments, the first being cyber-utopianism itself, and the second, being that all problems of the modern world must somehow be tied to matters of the internet.
The philanthropist and high-tech investor Esther Dyson exemplifies both streaks. Writing in 1997, she claimed in Release 2.0 that, “The Net offers us a chance to take charge of our own lives and to redefine our role as citizens of local communities and of a global society.” It provides opportunities of self-governance and autonomy, “to work with fellow citizens to design rules we want to live by.”
The obvious point lacking in Dyson’s analysis is that behind every utopia is a dystopia waiting to happen. All governments, whatever their creed, have been guilty of the same vice.
Freedom provides its own vicious subversions – the open use of Twitter and social media sites invariably allows for infiltration, trolling and forms of cyber counter-insurgency. The simple suggestion that authoritarianism is somehow an enemy of Internet freedom is naïve in so far as it suggests a total misunderstanding as to what such regimes can, in fact, do. All states, autocratic or otherwise, have made it their business to stifle Internet freedoms. They just disagree on how best to do it.
Sounding much like the former Soviet minister of culture, Andrei Zhdanov, Kerry claimed that, “Today, we’ve learned that walls can be made of ones and zeros and the deprivation of access even to those ones and zeros, and that wall can be just as powerful in keeping us apart in a world that is so incredibly interconnected.” This is somewhat ironic – Kerry himself is obsessed by the behaviour of authoritarian regimes and those who would police internet content, ignoring exactly what might be happening at home.
So many myths have been bound up with the Internet, it has become almost mandatory for Kerry to fall into the rather unreflective pose of technology as freedom. Zeros and Ones do nothing to liberate a people, let alone facilitate revolution and institutional change. This is another form of dastard cyber-utopianism – extolling a system of freedom that is merely the straw man of liberty.
Kerry and his colleagues, in truth, are all about regulation and the velvet glove of policing. They decry efforts to control the net in Venezuela, Russia and China, the traditional bogeymen of cyber-freedoms, but prove happy with puritanical measures that police inappropriate content or regulate traffic via private enterprise.
The recent move by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to initiate what it terms a “net neutrality” plan is even more indicative of the scope of control being exerted by the powers that be. Initiated by its chairman, Tom Wheeler, the proposal came about in response to failed efforts by his predecessor, Julius Genachowski, to defend net neutrality.
More than 100 technology companies, including Facebook Inc, Google Inc, and Amazon.com Inc, have expressed concerns about the proposal that regulates the way Internet providers manage traffic. They have urged the FCC to “take the necessary steps to ensure that the Internet remains an open platform for speech and commerce.”
The cardinal warning here is that any suggestion that finds home with the label “open” is bound to be only slightly ajar, if not closed altogether. The Wheeler plan, which purports to be an “open Internet” idea, imports commercial reasonableness into the management of the web. In other words, companies responsible for content would be able to purchase greater speeds on the Internet from broadband providers, within the bounds of commercial prudence.
The consequence of such a superficially liberal plan is that the Internet will be carved up, a case of managing traffic on the “fast lanes” via such companies as Verizon Communications or Comcast Corp, leaving others to languish in their use. The green light to discriminatory deals is being suggested. Even one FCC commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, felt that, “Rushing headlong into a rulemaking next week fails to respect the public response to his [Wheeler’s] proposal.”
An internal revolt in the FCC may well be on the cards. But what is an even more striking note is that internet freedom will be dealt a blow, not only by the orthodox authoritarians, but by closet regulators with their fingers on the switch.
Brian Merchant, writing for Motherboard is certainly right to note the fallacious binary embraced by Kerry: “Democracies with private internet service providers, good. Autocrats who block Twitter, or say that the CIA invented the internet, bad.”