Does social media define the limits of free speech?
The removal of the president’s Twitter profile of the United States has reached an almost symbolic dimension. It has become clear proof of the existence of censorship in social media. Even though Donald Trump has been balancing on the verge of free speech for many years, Twitter’s controversial decision sparked a wave of criticism and triggered the official public discourse on the rules of moderating content by online platforms. In Poland, the discussion on this topic escalated after the Facebook profile of Konfederacja (right-wing party in Poland) — one of the parties included in the government — was removed from the platform. The reason was to break the platform’s rules, but according to many opinions, preventive censorship took place.
George Orwell — Writer, Observer, Visionary?
When George Orwell’s novel “1984” came out, it was perceived as a harmless story about the future. The Orwellian vision of the world represented the surveillance of society by the authorities. The main character of the novel — Winston Smith, lived in Oceania, which was under the rule of the Party, whose superior was Big Brother. Initially, Smith rebelled against omnipresent control but eventually followed the rules.
More and more often, there is a confrontation of the writer’s vision with the current world situation in public debates. A key example of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the new media — on the one hand, enabling active functioning in cyberspace, and on the other hand — setting the limits of free speech. After banning Donald Trump and Konfederacja, one could risk saying that Orwell’s vision is becoming a reality.
Not only Trump — examples of censorship in social media
The case of Donald Trump is one of the most famous examples of censorship. Deleting Trump’s Twitter account resulted from previous actions limiting the president’s activity in social media. One of them was labeling his posts as ‘misleading’. Trump’s posts have constantly spread inequalities and racial hatred, which does not change that the legitimacy of this decision should be discussed. The question arises, who should decide about the harmfulness of content and violated freedom of speech? Who has the right to decide on key issues for the development of the web, including deleting specific content from the Internet, blocking or completely deleting accounts of selected users — private, public, and even social organizations? The website owner, an independent court, or maybe someone else completely?
“Freedom” of the speech in China
The People’s Republic of China is one of the first countries in the world to implement total internet censorship. This makes it possible to use the government-controlled media as an alternative channel of diplomacy. The Great Firewall network security introduced in 1998 allows blocking and limiting access to specific websites. Moreover, after entering into the search engine terms such as, e.g., democracy, dictatorship, human rights, or genocide — irrelevant results are displayed, or the system blocks searching. In addition to the extensive media control system, there is also self-censorship in China among journalists who risk severe fines and even imprisonment by raising topics not approved by the authority. According to official data, as many as 38 journalists were imprisoned in 2017.
Turkey increases control
In 2020, the Turkish Parliament passed a law that allows popular social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to be banned if they do not agree to the government’s rules on censorship, blocking, or removal of selected content. Moreover, the law says that social media companies with 1 million users daily must open their offices in Turkey. If they fail to do so, they will face fines as well as limited bandwidth and access to Turkish users. Although the law restricts human rights standards, the silencing of the media by the Turkish government has become a fact nowadays.
Facebook censored in Vietnam
The Communist Party of Vietnam forced Facebook to politically censor and remove some of the content under the threat of losing access to the Vietnamese market. The Vietnamese market brings Facebook over a billion dollars in revenue. In January 2021, just before the Party’s congress, Facebook significantly increased the censorship of anti-state posts, giving the government almost total control of the platform.
Full control in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is rated as one of the most undemocratic countries in the world with full Internet control. There are no websites about gambling, drugs, or any content criticizing the authorities or undermining Islam. The local law authorizes the Special Criminal Court to question the suspect without the presence of his lawyer. One of the evidence of the strict rules is the story of a blogger. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 horsewhips for creating a website that the authorities did not like.
Alexei Navalny is a Russian political activist, a well-known critic of the Kremlin, and a promoter of reforms against corruption in Russia. His allies accused YouTube and Telegram of censorship after platforms restricted access to anti-government sites. In addition, activists accused Google and Apple of complying with pressure coming from the Kremlin — the companies removed the Alexei Navalny application from the Apple Store and Google Play, which supported the opposition in elections.
The controversial story of Julian Assange was in the media worldwide. Assange, who started his ‘career’ as a hacker. In 2006, he created WikiLeaks, where he published various government and corporate documents anonymously. The whistleblowers made it available (informants who want to report illegal activities). In 2007, he published a video showing American soldiers shooting civilians in Baghdad. The case got quickly to the media, and the situation was called a war crime. The US government very quickly targeted the author of the recording — Chelsea Manning, and imprisoned her. Meanwhile, Julian was accused of rape in Sweden. In 2010, he voluntarily turned himself into the British police. In 2012, after two years of house arrest, he managed to obtain political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. There are no decisions on his extradition to the US authorities to date.
The future is marked by (lack of) censorship
There is no doubt that social media is now the most popular form of media. Users think of popular websites as the primary source of knowledge and entertainment. Being in the Internet space is a part of our everyday life, and new technologies help create a real cyber empire. Does moderation and removal of selected content from the Internet protect users or violate limits of free speech? How to fight the algorithms that give users access to censored information?
One way to break the monopoly of popular social media and restrict censorship practices is to create a decentralized platform independent of the Big Tech tech giants. A platform where freedom of speech is unlimited. Where users can share their knowledge and monetize it. And ccFOUND will be such a platform.