The Internet and unlimited free speech are part and parcel of the modern world. Regulation on a global scale is neither possible nor desirable but should we perhaps adhere to some basic principles? Vaudine England looks at some of the arguments put forward by Timothy Garton Ash in his latest book, Free Speech, Ten Principles for a Connected World
Do we really need yet another well-meaning essay about how free speech is a nice thing and we should all have it?
Ever since I had to fold the church newsletter for pocket money I’ve had rather an aversion to the whole idea of preaching to the converted. And surely now that at least half the world’s population has access to the internet, we are all free to share ideas and marvels across boundaries, fuelling change through social media, right? Yes and no.
Several recent chroniclers of our times have pointed out that with every new freedom of the internet comes a new responsibility or fear. A recent review of several such books referred back to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon, a circular prison with an inspection chamber stuck in the middle. It meant that every prisoner could be watched at any time, but you would never know when the jailer was looking. (See the Weekend FT, 11 March 2017, for John Gapper’s review of new books by Donna Freitas, Adam Alter and Robin Boast.)
It is this landscape that the Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash has chosen to chart in his latest book, Free Speech, Ten Principles for a Connected World. Professor Ash did his post-graduate fieldwork in East Berlin, back before the Wall came down and an earlier book, The File, is a brilliant evocation of that time, and of layers of perception. This is relevant now, as Professor Ash told a Hong Kong audience in early March 2017, that what is now available about each of us (our File, as it were) on the internet would be a Stasi detective’s wet dream.
As he discusses in his book Free Speech (on page 284), surveillance is, in fact, the business model of the internet. He quotes a security expert as explaining how private empires such as Google and Facebook build systems that spy on people in exchange for services which are described as free. ‘Corporations call it marketing’, says the expert.
This is the new world that Ash, over the course of a decade of another set of layers of perception — academic research, interviews in Silicon Valley, and the vast global website project called freespeechdebate.com — has set out to consider. Happily, Ash has the knack of the best public intellectuals of taking vast, complex, scary subjects and putting them into words we can relate to.
Most importantly, he has taken the debate into new territory by engaging directly with people far beyond a western liberal’s usual comfort zone. He has sat with and learned from intellectuals and internet practitioners from Iran to Brazil, from China to India, from Turkey to South Africa.
He makes the point that the vital other half of speech is listening and it’s clear he has listened intently in his quest to find new, workable definitions of free speech that cross cultural boundaries. This is a deeply thoughtful and informed look at how ancient, diverse cultures and peoples have tackled this fundamental issue of existence and how these various ideas work now.
He talks of the year 1989 as one of the most profound in recent history. In that year, the Berlin Wall was broken down heralding the end of the Cold War division of Europe; Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie (in one of many illuminating asides we are told that Rushdie’s American publisher had naively asked, what’s a fatwa?), the Chinese Communist Party reasserted its claim to survival via Tiananmen Square, and the World Wide Web was invented.
As a result, ‘We are all neighbours now. There are more phones than there are human beings and close to half of humankind has access to the internet… Never in human history was there such a chance for freedom of expression as this. And never have the evils of unlimited free expression — death threats, paedophile images, sewage-tides of abuse — flowed so easily across frontiers.’ (Ash, p1)
It is this consciousness of the here and now, and how dramatically different it is to the very recent past, that makes Ash’s book so important. He is illuminating on virtually every page. Some points seem blindingly obvious. But after a chapter going more deeply into what, for example, it means that ‘were each user of Facebook to be counted as an inhabitant, Facebook would have a larger population than China’, one is left in no doubt that some corporations have more power than most states.
That can be frightening, until Ash also points out that without users — and that is each of us — those uber-states are nothing. So it matters, deeply, what we do with our power. He calls the most powerful states (still led by the U.S.) ‘Big Dogs’, and the commercial superpowers ‘Big Cats’. Yes, we are the mice, but without us, the big animals die.
Ash knows all about the constraints on the internet, and the legal guarantees of freedom of speech, plus where these work and where, as in China, they patently fail. Ash takes things a large step further however.
He realised he needed to engage the monster he was talking about, and so the vast web-based project, Free Speech Debate, began. At one level, this is a website, most of it now in 13 languages, where all and any issue relating to free speech are debated, translated, discussed, disagreed with and published. In detail, it is a fascinating exploration of multiple cultures, ideas, histories and personalities.
Real stories, and accounts of actual, vigorous debate, of basic values is something we’re often all too scared to bother with these days — for fear of being labelled politically incorrect in some places, or being locked up or shot in others.
At the end of the web-based Free Speech Debate, ten points emerged as a kind of shorthand for how to live in this newly interconnected cosmopolis that everyone online in the world is now a part of.