Free Speech: Where Is It Headed in the Digital Age?

David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, addressing the Human Rights Council, June 17, 2015, Geneva. He has written a new book on the global struggle to wrestle with the power of the Internet. JEAN-MARC FERRE/UN PHOTO

David Kaye, a leading voice on human rights in the digital age, is also a United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, a post he has held since August 2014. The author of a recent book, “Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet,” he spoke with me as moderator this summer about the state of free speech, an event held at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

We are at a critical juncture in one of the most consequential free-speech debates in history, a debate that has an impact on politics, economics, national security and civil liberties as governments and activists try to control online discourse. The speed with which the Internet has evolved has led not only to how billions of people interact but also how they see the world.

The Internet has transformed how information is exchanged and business is conducted. But the transformation has not always been for the public good. Corporations, authoritarian governments and criminals have colonized vast tracts of digital space.

Because the Internet is a medium that involves many different actors and moving parts and is not controlled by any one centralized system, organization or governing body, regulating it has given rise to free-speech issues and cybersecurity concerns. While it may make life just a little more pleasurable, it makes democracy a lot more challenging, raising legal, moral and ethical concerns. The challenge is how to curtail hate messages on the Internet while maintaining freedom of speech.

Should governments set the rules, or should companies such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter be permitted to moderate their space as they see fit? Who should decide whether content should be removed from platforms or which users should be asked to leave?

As the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Kaye has dealt with these issues daily.

DAVID KAYE: I’m going to talk today a little bit, and I do want to emphasize a “little bit” because I think this is a topic which is in many respects remarkable in the way it has captured public attention. When we talk about who controls speech online I think of it as, What’s the trauma of the morning?

First, I want to say a few words about how the companies have come to dominate public space in so many places around the world. What is the nature of platform power?

I’ll start there, and then I’ll talk a bit about how in governments around the world — although interestingly, not the US government, this has been basically in the context of regulatory discussions — a question about European and then beyond Europe authoritarian regimes often jealously looking at the power of companies and trying to figure out how to pull them back, how to reclaim public space for their publics.

In the third part of the discussion I want to give some ideas about how to solve the problems. I use the word “solve” with some caution, because although I don’t want to start with cynicism or deep skepticism, I do think that this is a problem that is going to be a generational problem for us to resolve, whether we’re talking about disinformation or hate speech or even terrorist content.


 

 

We have some extremely serious challenges ahead of us that are challenges about public policy, they’re challenges about the nature of expression in a digital age and they’re also challenges about the nature of regulation and what we think of the mutual roles of government and the corporate sector in the world in which we live today.

I hope that gives you a little bit of a road map of where I’ll be heading in this discussion.

To read the full text of Kaye’s speech, click here.

 

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