Is it time for a global conversation on free speech?

By Helena Williams

Social media. Free speech. Democracy. These were the buzzwords of 2011, where international movements like the Arab Spring were said to have been fuelled by the power to communicate with one another without hindrance. 

The year of unrest has put the spotlight on the role of the internet and social media in challenging power elites and their capacity to control what the outside world sees. But while the West praises ‘pro-democracy’ movements in Arab countries and their use of social media, Westerners face greater surveillance in the name of security, including threats of increased controls in the wake of the London riots. 

“We’re becoming neighbours with each other,” said Timothy Garton Ash, director of the Free Speech Debate, a multi-lingual online platform for discussing freedom of expression which was launched in January 2012:

“The old ways of thinking about free speech – when in Rome, do as the Romans do – breaks down. But China and Iran do try to reassert their control over the internet, over the control of ideas." 

“We have to have a global conversation about what should be the norms for freedom of expression.”

He was joined by Marie Gillespie, Professor of Sociology at The Open University and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change; Khaled Fahmy, professor and chair of the American University in Cairo’s Department of History; Kirsty Hughes, the Chief Executive of freedom of expression NGO Index on Censorship; to discuss what the historian and commentator has set out as the first principle of free speech: That all human beings must be free and able to express themselves, and to receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers: 

“In this brave new world, private powers are at least as important as public powers. Facebook as a country would be the third largest country in the world. What Google does is more important than what Germany does.

“But they set rules without any democratic process. The internet also allows for new self-governing communities” said Garton Ash.

The highly academic debate – which some members of the audience dubbed “far too academic” and “Western” to be applied in actuality across the world – explored the pros and cons of Garton Ash’s ideal, outlined in ten draft principles supposed to be the ‘rules of thumb’ of free speech.

But Fahmy emphasised that the Egyptian revolution had “open access to information” at its core:

“It definitely isn’t a revolution of the poor and hungry – that might be just one dimension,” he said. “The need to inform was central in the revolution. We are in the middle of it.”

“It is not Islamists that pose the most serious threats to freedom of information. It is the military and all that is attached to it. It is the military we are fighting and the national security we are trying to challenge.” 

But the ideals of equality and freedom of expression were brought into question by Gillespie, whose research suggested that structures of inequality found in reality are replicated in the media:

“Are we really all neighbours? The structure of inequalities that exist in the world are replicated and intensified online. It is important to think about who is talking and who, most importantly, is listening.”

Another blow to Garton Ash’s project was dealt by Hughes, who said that a global code as is outlined in the Free Speech Debate project could open up freedom of expression to government interference and top down control – which would undermine the idea completely:

“Do we need a global code? No, we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Codes open up government interference and topdown control. It can lead to self-censorship.”

“But we still need to fight for freedom of expression,” she added. “Let’s have a conversation but not a code.”

Diverse voices explored and expressed the pros and cons of working towards such an ideal – and so in a sense, demonstrated Garton Ash’s project in action.

“We have to move from purely western universalism to a more universal universalism,” said Garton Ash:

“The only way to do that is to put your own propositions on the table and be genuinely open to what someone in China, or Egypt, would say in response.”