On January 16, the Editors Guild of India, Index on Censorship, and Sage Publications organised a panel discussion titled ‘Is Freedom of Expression Under Threat in the Digital Age?’ It was well-timed, given the recent closely watched stalemate at the World Conference on International Telecommunications where countries could not reach a consensus on if and how the internet should be governed. As Kirsty Hughes, CEO of Index on Censorship remarked, it is still not clear as to who is winning the battle.

Timothy Garton Ash, director of the free speech debate project at Oxford University, argued that the digital age has in fact advanced freedom of speech. “Is freedom of speech under threat in the digital age? Yes of course. But freedom of speech has been under threat in every age. The digital age is in fact the biggest opportunity for freedom of speech since Gutenberg”, he said. Outlining the power of the internet today, he explained that entities like Google and Facebook who have over billions of users, are more important today than countries like France or Germany. “We have seen an electronically empowered revolution like the Arab Spring, and an uprising like the Delhi anti-rape protests. I think India is one of the swing states in deciding where freedom of speech on the internet is headed”, he said. Prof. Ash also emphasised that free speech should be regulated only when it can be clearly demonstrated that hate speech has led to violence and destruction. “Rwanda is an example”, he offered.

Ajit Balakrishnan, founder of Rediff.com, gave a broad overview of the particular instances where the limits of freedom of speech on electronic communication have been tested, starting from the November 2011 controversy over morphed images of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh in a compromising position circulating on Facebook, to the arrests of Shaheen Dhanda and her friend Renu. He faulted poor drafting of laws for abuse of the right to free speech. “The tragic mistake in the Bombay case was that the power to take a call on the arrest was left to the SHO and that too based on a law enacted as recently as in 2000. In India, laws are understood only after they have been around for 25 years”, he opined, stressing on the need to protect information intermediaries in order to fully harness the productivity of the internet age.

Freedom of speech has been under threat in every age. The digital age is in fact the biggest opportunity for freedom of speech since Gutenberg.

Kirsty Hughes warned listeners that there was a real risk of the world moving towards a more censored, fragmented net, threatening the international essence of the internet. “What is at threat is the freedom of expression between citizens of different countries”, she said. She also sounded a word of caution about knee-jerk reactions to ‘offensive’ content on the web. “If we try to sign a global top-down order stating that we will have no offensive speech on the internet, which is what Russia and China were playing at in the UN International Telecommunications Union, we will find that our spaces for freedom of speech have shrunk to pretty much nothing at all”, she explained.

Hughes also pointed out that while governments were trying to co-opt private companies into censoring the internet, it was heartening to note that some private companies were resisting this pressure. Raman Singh Chima, Senior Policy Analyst from Google pointed out the Google Transparency Report as a record of where one can view a complete record of all censorship requests made to Google. He cited the US Supreme Court ruling that struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act, where the court observed that the internet deserves incredibly powerful free speech protection because it is unparalleled in its ability to make expression possible and allows people across borders to collaborate and work at practically no cost. “We need laws to enable the internet, to advance the freedoms that all of us hold dear”, he said.

While the conference threw up several interesting aspects to this debate, it would have helped if the participants had also highlighted some of the lesser discussed aspects, for example, since several NGO’s like the ICANN, which play an active role in internet governance, are contracted to the US government, there is a fear that while western democracies might espouse free speech abroad, they can also use internet access as a diplomatic tool, choosing to deny the same to countries they are sanctioning.

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