Freedom of Speech on the Internet: the Case of Revenge Porn and Hate Speech

 

Germany has a law in the works that would fine social media companies up to $53 million if any postings with criminal content or offensive material show up on their sites. The companies would have 24 hours to remove the “criminal content” and 7 days for “offensive material”. Apparently youtube does a pretty good job of this already, but Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others do not.

Is this a good idea? Let’s break it down into its parts:

Freedom of Speech   Free speech advocates will deplore this law, but let’s get real. What the Founding Fathers wanted was not the freedom to say anything. As I’ve written before, the German term Meinungsfreiheit (Freedom of Opinion) is a better way to describe what any free society should be aiming for.   We want a marketplace of ideas and opinions, but that does not mean we can say or publish anything we want.   We live in an age where some people have slipped so far into the Dark Side that they are getting their kicks from posting naked shots of those who have spurned them, or even filming and uploading rapes. How low can we go in our race to the bottom? Images like this have nothing to do with opinions.  It turns the Sacrament of Sexual Union into a societal sickness.  Making sure the sickness doesn’t spread should be a high priority.

Enforcement  Is it possible to police this? Yes.  The big dollar amount is meant to get the attention of these companies that are making criminal activity possible. That makes sense.   If there were a TV network that allowed criminals to conduct their dealings on the air, or a newspaper that published revenge porn, they would be sued, put out of business, and their owners sent to the penitentiary. If it’s going to exist at all, Facebook should make sure it can police itself—hire more staff, whatever it takes to ensure that we don’t have to live in a world where the pseudopods of the Dark Side gradually engulf us all.

Who will decide what is criminal content? The companies themselves will have to set limits. If they want to play it safe, those limits will err on the side of caution, and that would not be a bad thing. Social media is so powerful– a good idea or an uplifting moment can reach millions instantaneously.  But so can a bad idea or a propaganda piece urging jihadists to go lone wolf.  This “platform” is so powerful, that far from being a soapbox on a street corner, it’s a stage as big as the world itself. Someone has to edit the scripts that are being read on that stage.

Who will decide what is offensive? The companies again will have to decide what to delete, and, again, as I’ve written before, the gauge should be respect. Many are offended by much of what Donald Trump says, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to say it. But if the utterances are couched in scurrilous or scabrous language or images, –it’s trash talk, send it to the trash.

The larger point here is this: yes, it’s censorship!  Embrace it–we need it.   We don’t need a tool that allows us to upload pornography, rapes, torture, or beatings onto the internet. We could get along fine without it.  So if we’re going to allow it to exist, it should only be under strict conditions.  If you’re going to argue that we need to be free to put anything we want out there for public consumption —no, we don’t. Because the yahoos of the world will take that freedom and use it to abuse others. We need a law like the Germans are proposing in order to protect ourselves from ourselves.

For more on this subject:  Freedom of Speech in Germany? Up to  a Point

Free Speech Crisis in Germany

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Brussels Aftermath: The Search for Humanity

What do we do after a terrorist attack? How do we keep going? We feel afraid and helpless.  How do we deal with our fear?  Just as when someone close to us has died, the urge to do something, anything, is so strong. But what?

One European Union official on BBC radio this morning had an excellent suggestion. In an age where the first reaction is to go online and write something to our Facebook friends, he declared that it’s time to get away from the pull of social media, and come together in real time with real people.   He is urging Belgians later today to gather at one of the large squares in Brussels, to come together face-to-face with strangers, to show solidarity with the victims, to hold hands…in short, to vivre ensemble–to live together.

I know what this feels like.   In the days after 9/11, I, along with all other Americans and so many people around the world, were overcome by a profound need to connect with others.   I talked to people in Germany I hadn’t spoken to in years.   I went to the town square and sang in a crowd in front of the post office.   I found myself one day at the Unitarian-Universalist church (where I was not a member) holding hands in a circle with a group of strangers.   At that moment the idea of feeling like a citizen-of-the-world was not some far-out concept—it was happening. It’s happening now again, unfortunately as the result of despicable, misguided, inhuman acts designed to make us afraid of each other.

And we are afraid.   How can you not be? The world has changed and it’s no good sticking your head in the sand. But as we come to terms with new dangers, as we make sensible adjustments to try to protect ourselves from the unfathomable desire in some to deny their humanity and massacre the innocents, we have to reach out with greater determination than ever to resist that part of us that wants to demonize entire groups of people who are as innocent as the victims of the bombings.  We need to connect not just with our friends, our co-religionists, or fellow-countrymen, but with the entire world.  We must find a path into the future together based on what we all have in common: our humanity.

Stop reading this and go hold someone’s hand.