Mixed Signals: EU Ministers Want to Abridge Free Speech to Save It

The attack in France by gunmen has been seen by many as an attack on free speech by terrorists. While many are now rallying to protect free speech, interior ministers of Europe are calling for swift removal of certain kinds of content on the internet.

Gigaom is pointing to a statement made by France, Germany, Latvia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the U.K.

While the statement covers a number of items, one item really stands out for a lot of people. This item reads:

3/ We are concerned at the increasingly frequent use of the Internet to fuel hatred and violence and signal our determination to ensure that the Internet is not abused to this end, while safeguarding that it remains, in scrupulous observance of fundamental freedoms, a forum for free expression, in full respect of the law. With this in mind, the partnership of the major Internet providers is essential to create the conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible.

In addition to this effort, we have resolved – to combat terrorist propaganda and the misleading messages it conveys – to develop positive, targeted and easily accessible messages; able to counter this propaganda,
aimed at a young audience that is particularly vulnerable to indoctrination. In this regard, we urge all Member States to make maximum use of the Syria Strategic Communication Advisory Team (SSCAT) to be established by Belgium with European funding.

In order to tackle the root causes of radicalization in particular of young people, the EU should consider strengthening targeted actions designed to raise awareness and promote the respect of fundamental rights and values, including the development of an EU communication strategy as foreseen by the Council conclusions on the development of a renewed European Union Internal Security Strategy.

From an immediate philosophical point of view, what is being said is quite confusing. On the one hand, what is being called for is to reinforce the values of free speech. On the other hand, what is being called for is the removal, and possibly replacement, of what one organization is saying with the governments side of things. This perspective obviously shouldn’t be confused with support with said terrorists, however, it’s hard not to at least compare this to something like burning down the village to save it.

The next immediately obvious problem for many might be the slippery slope issue. Very few would take issue with trying to investigate and stop those who wish to cause harp to others. The problem is, where will the line ultimately be drawn? Would such takedown policies ultimately lead to political censorship? Some might say that when one obtains a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. What is private businesses see this tool as a way to discourage competition in the marketplace? The patent system has gained a lot of notoriety for discouraging competition (the cellular and tablet industries are a great example of this). Would this be another way for large companies to stamp out competition eventually?

From a bureaucratic perspective, this seems problematic because one may argue that the question of who decides what is propaganda could be an issue. How does one tell the difference between someone who is actively plotting to harm others and someone who is drunk and saying stupid things online? Also, similarly to the previous point, how does one avoid abuse of such a system in the first place?

Another problem one may point out is the resource and financial side of things. This is the Internet we are talking about here. How much would it cost to monitor and take down said content everywhere? One would need whole armies of people just to find content in the first place, let alone start the process of removing said content. All of this is happening when money and resources amongst governments is seemingly in short supply. Entire industries sprung up to send mass lawsuits in an effort to slow down file-sharing. Three strikes laws were put in place to do the same. Still, to this day, file-sharing is a very prominent thing. If the copyright industry cannot take down copyright infringement online, what chance does the government have of fully removing, say, hate speech online?

Naturally, there’s a number of technological problems with this. It’s puzzling that ISPs are singled out when social media websites have been pointed to as facilitating the distribution of content. If sites like Facebook and Twitter have made inciting violence or dissemination of hate speech against their policies, why not report it directly to them if such content is being found on there? Additionally, what about encrypted websites? One may also wonder how one goes about enforcing whatever rules are set out on such sites in the first place.

Noting all of these possible points and more, it can be safe to say that the call for blocking alleged propaganda to protect free speech is a bit of a contradictory call to begin with – let alone problematic. There doesn’t seem to be any details outlining how one could overcome the ensuing problems, so one may argue that it’s long on rhetoric, short on solutions. If this call leads anywhere, it’s not unreasonable to assume that it’s in for a long and bumpy ride.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.



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