I have some vague memories of my English classes in primary school, and Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London is one of those. That fasciated me as a child, and it still does. I believe Speakers’ Corner still exists, but probably in a somewhat limited version. Historically, however, this part of the park is a wonderful example of free speech where anyone can say what they mean. The Londoners have been able to do so legally since 1872.
We take free speeech for granted today. We can more or less say anything, anywhere, as long as we stay within the law. Unfortunately it’s not that simple, because we don’t make speeches and appeals on the town square or in the park anymore. It mostly takes place online today, where the social medias are entitled to limit the possibilities.
There have been some cases where social media have thrown users or posts out for violation of the terms. It’s not difficult to find examples of people who perhaps should have censored themselves either. Here are some famous examples from Norway: The Labour Party considered excluding a local politician from the town of Moss after he used quite direct and coarse language in his criticism of the Labour-led government. A policeman in Hamar was fired after doing the same. It turned out that he had also made some pretty racist jokes and comments on facebook. Another policeman was fired after some facebook statements about a politician from the Progressive Party. A politician representing the Conservatives made some foolish comment when Stella Mwangi (a Norwegian-African singer) won the Norwegian final of the Eurovision Song Contest a few years ago.
These are still only a few examples suggesting that having freedom of speech doesn’t mean we should always utilize this right. Another thing is that the owners of twitter, facebook, blog platforms etc. have no responsibility to provide a Speakers’ Corner. If we stay within the terms they set internet is a fantastic opportunity for freedom of expression, and for us to have a global conversation, but these companies are not providing this service in order to help us. They do it to make money.
Facebook deleted a post from Aftenposten (the biggest newspaper in Norway) a few years ago because it showed a nude photo of Fridtjof Nansen, and they threatened to delete the paper’s account if it happened again. I think this can also happen if you share someone else’s photo showing genitals.
I recently received a notification of a new follower on a blog I gave up pretty early. I wrote some good posts there, but decided to continue with political posts on this blog. When I tried to find out who this new reader was, which appeared 9 months after my last post, wordpress directed me to a message saying that the other blogger had been suspended for violating the terms of the agreement. I think it takes more for this to happen to a blog, but I guess wordpress follow the same principal as facebook, they are not going to risk their reputation and opportunities to make money.
When it comes to stopping things that basically are legitimate, you are probably more likely to succeed with facebook. In the first half of 2014 Norwegian authorities made 25 requests to have content removed. I’m not sure what they mean when they say that some data was produced in 40% of the requests, but I guess it was a form of reaction against the 50 accounts in question. Read the statistics here.
But there is also an increase in the content they delete on governments request. Facebook deleted for instance (January to June 2014) content 1773 times in Pakistan, 1893 times in Turkey and 4960 times in India. This is not just about following the law in the various countries. Several media have reported that Facebook has removed a promotion for an event in Russia where dissidents are having a demonstration to show support for a jailed opposition leader.
There is no doubt that social media companies, and especially Facebook, are doing what they can to appease the authorities in each country. It’s a paradox that freedom of expression may be restricted while the technical possibiliies to reach out get better every day. There are fewer and fewer companies and individuals that make these decisions. We saw how social media can work during the Arab spring, but then there were no authorities facebook risked offending.
It is more important than ever with independent voices. Media companies are also becoming part of larger corporations, and may have to accept the same requirements for profits, and perhaps a certain reticence in relation to whom they criticize. I recently read about a Norwegian company that owned a number of Norwegian newspapers. The board had decided that the company Polaris had to cut 100 million NOK the next 2 years, but they still payed out millions in dividends. This is a common story in Norway. Journalists are being laid off, jobs are outsourced, there is less and less content the newspapers produce themselves. When newspapers use less resources on the news, and require payment for online news, that is also a form of censorship. They make the information less accessible to some groups.
It‘s supposed to be media’s job to ensure that the authorities are doing their job. There doesn’t seem to be anyone keeping media honest. As long as they don’t break the law, no one cares what they report. It seems that this watchdog has become a very tame, small poodle when you expect a rottweiler, dobermann or something similar. It will be interesting to follow the development and the struggle for power. The situation is better in Norway than in many other countries, but there is an unfortunate trend here too.
After I wrote this, I came across an interesting comment in the newspaper The Guardian. I particularly like the ending. This isn’t a bad suggestion or postscript:
«Britain is a country where the strength of your voice depends on the amount of money in your bank account. But politics should not be a soap opera at the top. So for those of us who still believe in genuine democracy, 2014 was punctuated by hope. The housing crisis and poverty pay were tackled not by our politicians but by people from below.
If democracy is to be reborn, and if politics is not to be kept relentlessly on the terms most favourable to the powerful, other such campaigns must flourish. Working-class women and low-paid cinema workers became leaders last year. Now it’s time for the rest of us to follow.»