“Knowledge is power”, or so the old adage goes. Perhaps what the proverb overlooks is that those who facilitate the spread of knowledge hold more power than anyone. In human rights terms, freedom of expression is the right to impart and to receive information; and while a greater emphasis is often placed on the abilities of speakers to express themselves, what makes censorship so potent is that it is, in effect, the ability of an actor to exercise power over others by preventing them from receiving information.
It is without question that the most powerful actors in any democracy are those who craft our laws and those who provide us with information through the media. Politicians and those in the media are the traditional “gatekeepers” of speech and for centuries they have dominated the information landscape.
But a democracy where power is concentrated in the hands of a small number is not a healthy one. Democracy after all is about public empowerment and no actors in our system should be more important than the people themselves. For free expression, this is where the internet has been the great leveller. Older generations will remember their “JFK moment” – where they were when the 35th President was assassinated in 1963, most likely relayed to them via a radio broadcast or TV screen. Now, information relating to ground-breaking events of this kind moves instantaneously and is projected online before anywhere else.
Never before has it been easier for people to communicate with and reach one another. Never before has there been such a level of interconnectedness or of free-flowing information exchange between individuals, all over the world, at any given time. The internet democratised expression on an unprecedented scale.
However, with this comes problems. A freedom for all is just as much a freedom for bad actors to benefit (in this case to impart information) as good ones, although the internet as an infrastructure did not create individuals with malign intentions.
In recent years a great moral panic has arisen around the proliferation of so called “disinformation” and “misinformation” online. Of course, there is misinformation online, but this overblown panic stems out of a timelessly paternalistic and snobbish notion that ordinary people are too stupid to think for themselves.
However, neither disinformation nor misinformation are new. In 2012, the Sun newspaper apologised for spreading “misinformation” in its reporting on the Hillsborough Stadium disaster 23 years previously. Disinformation, or wilfully spreading falsehoods – also known as lying – is also not a modern phenomenon and has been a tool used by politicians for years. In the lead up to the 2003 Iraq War, the British public were subjected to a disinformation campaign that cost lives and freedoms.
The idea that the internet is a hotbed of dangers and lies, that poses a risk to anyone who logs on, fails to recognise that broad societal problems transcend online too. Yet this perspective, which fails to tackle issues on a case-by-case basis and instead sees the problem as interconnectedness in and of itself, is the new approach of policymakers. A case in point here is the UK Government’s new Online Safety Bill, which seeks to introduce a new kind of broadcast-style regulation for online platforms and will do untold damage to freedom of expression online in the process.
The legislation places a duty of care on online platforms to remove any content which could be harmful. According to the Bill, online expression is harmful if it risks “having, or indirectly having, a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities”. With definitions this broad, the legislation will force social media companies to censor any content which is even mildly controversial. This is a disaster for freedom of speech.
In the face of such a threat, you could be forgiven for thinking that the old guardians of expression, the politicians and those in the media, might cry foul at this broad and censorious legislation but this is not the case. Shaken by their own online abuse, MPs have been blinded to the dangers of this Bill and are keen to enact quick fixes online, even if the consequences are disastrous for a free and open web. Meanwhile, in the face of existential threats to their trade, the press have clamoured for any regulation of their new digital rivals in Silicon Valley, regardless of how damaging the proposals may be.
As such, opposition in Parliament and the newspapers has been hard to find. Worse still, is that in recognition of the threat this Bill would pose to freedom of speech online, the Government have created carveouts in the legislation to protect “journalistic content” and “content of democratic importance”. This would have the effect of creating a regime of online speech moderation which ordinary citizens would have to abide by but politicians and journalists would be above.
All of this smacks of a class of people in politics and the media, who once held great power over information, trying to claw it back. Once upon a time he who controlled the media, controlled the minds of the public, to paraphrase the American academic and linguist, Noam Chomsky. The internet promised to decentralise information and democratise speech, but the old gate-keepers of speech don’t like it one bit.
Mark Johnson, Big Brother Watch Legal and Policy Officer.