Wisconsin Technology Council Wisconsin Technology Council

Striking balance between free speech and 'hate speech' is Internet balancing act

September 24, 2012

By Tom Still

In what kind of country would you rather live: One in which an Islamophobe with a criminal record is free to make a deliberately incendiary video, or one in which independent filmmakers of all stripes are routinely harassed by their government?

I’ll take the former, thank you, even if it sometimes comes with tragic consequences.

The violent reaction to “Innocence of Muslims” in the Middle East has rekindled the debate over freedom of speech in a digital age. In an era when hate-mongers can post a low-budget movie on YouTube and incite riots half a world away, isn’t it time to adjust the Internet’s content filters so no one else gets hurt or killed?

Most Americans would agree the answer is “no,” especially if the people playing with the control switches are from the government. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has kept this nation open to all manner of political expression for nearly 225 years, and it’s just as relevant today as it was when pen and ink were the primary forms of communication.

The more difficult question relates to how the Internet’s major portals – such as Google (which owns YouTube), Facebook and Twitter – exercise their responsibilities in determining what goes online and what doesn’t. What may surprise some critics is that all three of these companies take that role seriously, even if their internal rules differ.

The English-language version of “Innocence of Muslims” caused barely a ripple when it was posted online, but the Arabic version proved explosive. The film does not specifically incite violence against Muslims, although it mocks their religion, so Google initially concluded it was not “hate speech” under its terms-of-use rules.

Google later restricted access to the film in a few countries because of another company rule that bans content considered offensive to cultural norms. That decision may seem like a fine line, but it reflects the fact that every country has its own laws as well as its own definition of what constitutes hate speech.

Those kinds of decisions are made daily by Internet companies as they strike a balance between openness – an online value that has led to more democracy worldwide – and expression that is inflammatory. Those choices must take place in a world where not everyone with access to the Internet shares the American commitment to freedom of speech or our system of law.

While Google was weighing how to handle the anti-Islamic video, Facebook blocked links to the film in Pakistan due to that nation’s anti-blasphemy laws. Facebook has some of the industry’s strictest rules, including bans on pages set up by known terrorist groups. Its policies expressly prohibit hate speech and “content that threatens or organizes violence, or praises violent organizations.”

Facebook users can report content they find objectionable, and Facebook employees then check it out. The company’s underlying software also picks up key words that can be inspected by those same employees.

Twitter does not explicitly address hate speech but does prohibit “direct, specific threats of violence against others.”

Some free speech advocates have argued that all expression, repugnant and beyond, should be allowed online. But others merely want the communications giants to act as discrete editors, policing the avalanche of content that comes at them every day and declining to post or blocking that which violates their own rules.

The Internet has proven to be a powerful force for democracy worldwide. That includes the Middle East, where the “Arab spring” uprisings might not have been possible without instant communications. And it is helping to slowly open up countries such as China, where independent filmmakers persist despite official sanctions for those who cross the line.

Because the Internet is a uniquely American innovation, it reflects American values such as freedom of expression. For those values to endure, the Internet’s stewards must continue to exercise solid judgment in a world with conflicting standards and laws.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.


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