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


Are storytelling and appealing to emotions valid ways of arguing, debate panellists at Index autumn magazine launch

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”103062″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]“Critical thinking is important, but we should also be teaching scientific literacy and political literacy so we know what knowledge claims to trust,” said Keith Kahn-Harris, author of Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, at a panel debate during the launch of the autumn 2018 edition of Index on Censorship.

The theme of this quarter’s magazine, The Age of Unreason, looks at censorship in scientific research and whether our emotions are blurring the lines between fact and fiction. From Mexico to Turkey, Hungary to China, a whole range of countries from around the globe were covered for this special report, featuring articles from the likes of Julian Baggini and David Ulin. For the launch, a selection of journalists, authors and academics shared their thoughts on how to have better arguments when emotions are high, while exploring concerns surrounding science and censorship in the current global climate.

Aptly taking place at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the historical home of scientific research for 14 Nobel Prize winners, Kahn-Harris was joined by BBC Radio 4 presenter Timandra Harkness and New Scientist writer Graham Lawton. The discussion was chaired by Rachael Jolley, editor of Index on Censorship magazine.

“Academics and experts are being undermined all over the world,” said Jolley, setting the stage for a riveting conversation between panellists and the audience. “Is this something new or something that has happened throughout history?”

When Jolley asked why science is often the first target of an authoritarian government, Lawton proposed that the value of science is that it is evidence-based and subsequently “kryptonite” to what rigid establishments want to portray. He added: “They depend extremely heavily on telling people half-truths or lies.”[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”103066″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Harkness led a workshop highlighting the importance of applying critical thinking skills when deconstructing arguments, using footage of real-life debates, past and present, to investigate such ideas. Whether it was the first televised contest between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, or a dispute between Indian civilians over LGBT rights earlier this year, a wide variety of topics and discussions were analysed.

Examining a debate between 2016 presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, Harkness asked an audience member his thoughts. Focusing on Trump’s approach, he said: “He’s put up a totally false premise which is quite a conventional tactic; you put up something that is not what the other person said, and then you proceed to knock it down quite reasonably because it’s unreasonable in the first place.” Harkness agreed. “It’s the straw man tactic”, she said, “where you build something up and then attack it.”

Panellists began discussing how to argue with say those who deny climate change, with Kahn-Harris contending that science has become enormously specialised over the past centuries, which means people cannot always debunk uncertain claims since they are not specialists. He said: “There’s something tremendously smug about the post-enlightenment world.”

Harkness said “robust challenges” should be sought-after rather than silencing those who share different views, while Lawton added that “storytelling and appealing to emotions are perfectly valid ways of arguing.”

For more information on the autumn issue, click here. The issue includes an article on how fact and fiction come together in the age of unreason, why Indian journalism is under threat, Nobel prize-winning novelist Herta Müller on censorship in Romania, and an exclusive short story from bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin. Listen to our podcast here. Or, try our quiz that decides how prone to bullshit you are…[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1538584887174-432e9410-24f0-4″ taxonomies=”8957″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Timandra Harkness: I prefer comedy that challenges the audience


Battle of Ideas 2016
A weekend of thought-provoking public debate taking place on 22 and 23 October at the Barbican Centre. Join the main debates or satellite events.

Comedy and censorship: Are you kidding me?
Is the fear of offence killing comedy? Jodie Ginsberg, Timandra Harkness, Will Franken, Tom Walker and Steve Bennett with chair Andrew Doyle.

When: 23 October, 10-11:30am
Where: Cinema 2, Barbican, London
Tickets: Available from the Battle of Ideas

From hate speech to cyber-bullying: Is social media too toxic?
What of the free speech of those harassed into silence by a stream of abuse? And what of the abuse itself, consisting, as it so often seems to, of fantasy punishments and name-calling? Is that speech worth defending?

When: 22 October, 4-5:15pm
Where: Pit Theatre, Barbican, London
Tickets: Available from the Battle of Ideas

We live in serious times, what with civil wars, US elections and the threat of Marmite rationing. But there’s always room in the news for outrage about a joke.

In the last few days Simon Cowell has been reprimanded for making a “back door” joke to X Factor host Rylan Clark-Neal, and singer Lily Allen for a stupid pun on the word “gyppo,” recorded several years ago. Meanwhile, Canadian comic Mike Ward, who was fined $42,000 by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal for making jokes about a singer with disabilities, has been given leave to appeal.

The Ward case rightly drew support from comedians (and others) who didn’t particularly like the material. David Mitchell, commenting in The Guardian on jokes like Ward’s, said: “If we take ‘OK’ to mean ‘nice’, ‘polite’, ‘admirable’ or ‘kind’, then it isn’t. But if, by OK, we simply mean ‘legal’, then of course it’s OK. And quite right too.”

Offence depends heavily on context. Anybody who tells jokes for a living can easily imagine finding that an offensive gag is now a civil or even criminal offence. Collective self-interest alone should be (and usually is) enough to make comedians hold the line that legally, at least, anything goes in comedy.

This is not to say that one joke is as good as another. As writers, performers and audience members, we should discriminate between good and bad work. But this is a matter of quality, not morality. Lazy comedy presses the obvious buttons of the target audience. That can mean “back door” jokes about gay sex, or making fun of Donald Trump.

But you can hit the same targets without being lazy. Comedian Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, attacked both Donald Trump and the response to “Pussygate” with material that mocks those outraged by his use of “the P-word”, instead of by sexual assault. By ending his routine with the phrase “no pussy for me,” Noah will have offended those people all over again. That’s his point: it’s not about the word.

Although I prefer comedy that challenges the audience, rudely or gently, it’s no more possible to draw a line around acceptable approaches than around permitted subject matter. Again, it’s all about context. The same joke can shake one audience’s core beliefs, but reinforce another’s smug certainties.

So there should be no holds barred in comedy, nothing forbidden and nothing out of bounds. Leave it to the judgment of writers, performers and the audience. Especially the audience, because any kind of censorship is depriving them of their right to be offended.

Nobody has a right not to be offended. Certainly not a right enforced on their behalf by those in authority. How can anyone feel at once so vulnerable about being able to withstand unpleasant humour, and yet so confident in their capacity to draw the line of social acceptability?

It’s an absurd position, that only makes sense if each individual’s feelings are the supreme arbiter of moral value. And if each of us can insist that the law, or collective social censure, forbid the hurting of our feelings, there will soon be nothing left in shared culture but the blandest, safest, most anodyne pap.

We do all have the right to express our feelings of anger and disgust if we don’t like a joke. We have the right to leave the venue or switch the channel, to speak or write our own views, or simply to withhold our laughter which, for a comedian, is akin to withholding oxygen.

Though we should ask ourselves what provokes these feelings in us. Is it targetting of the weak, asking us to become vicarious bullies? Is it an unsettling of our ideas about ourselves, as we laugh at things we never thought we’d find funny? Or is it that we don’t think other people should listen to this, in case weaker minds than ours are poisoned by words or images?

If it’s the first, that you’re simply not amused by “punching down,” (or gratuitous lewdness, or whatever) don’t laugh. Be unamused. Like a tango, comedy takes at least two, and if one side of the partnership is not in the mood, comedy will quickly go flaccid.

If you don’t like being unsettled, that’s also fine. Not everybody goes to comedy to be made to think, just as not everybody goes to the opera for the thrilling discords of the latest Harrison Birtwhistle. Pick a different comedian next time. But it’s not up to you to prevent others subjecting their fondly-held ideas to the test of mockery, or of sudden shifts of perspective.

If your objection is that other people may be swayed by a joke to views you don’t like, you may be over-estimating the power of comedy or underestimating your fellow humans’ capacity to think for themselves. Or both. Either way, the only word for trying to prevent somebody else from seeing or hearing something is censorship.

As somebody who still writes and performs comedy, I’m almost flattered that anybody thinks it has that much power. It’s a long time since I was worthy of censure or censorship. So long that the offending material was about the aftermath of Diana’s tragic death in a car crash. These days the most controversial material I do involves a graph of the medical benefits of moderate drinking (you’d be surprised how provocative that can be to the right audience).

When I do shows, I hope people leave both amused and provoked to think afresh. As a writer and performer, I craft each line with that in mind.

But as a human being, I know that my audience arrived in the venue with their own thoughts, leave with their own thoughts, and engage with my ideas on their own terms, if at all. So politically, more important than anything I can say or show to them in that venue is the fact that they are free to decide for themselves what to see, what to hear, and what to think.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1485724697354-3cadb031-9134-7″ taxonomies=”8826″][/vc_column][/vc_row]