Freedom of Expression Online: A Mirror of Freedom of Expression in Traditional Media?

Monday, October 14, 2013
By Laura Tribe This paper was delivered at the World Social Science Forum 2013, as a part of a UNESCO panel: Rethinking Freedom of Expression in an Information Society: Challenges and New Opportunities.
The widespread adoption of online media has empowered individuals to develop new forms of expression, reach new audiences and quickly disseminate information around the world. From emails and blogs, to YouTube and Twitter, new digital technologies are enabling people who otherwise might not have been heard to express themselves and engage in far-flung conversations that were once near impossible. However, threats to free expression are just as prevalent online as they are off. NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR EXPRESSION Let’s begin with the opportunities for free expression online. Internet use, and social media in particular, has allowed for the disruption of the power dynamics of global communications. The change in the flow of information has altered traditional mechanisms of institutional control. Although there are clearly exceptions, major traditional (or offline), media outlets are typically concentrated in the hands of a few – mainly large corporations. Traditional media such as television or newspapers can be quite expensive, and require specific skills and expertise to produce. Online media have disrupted this structure, by enabling almost anyone who wants to publish or broadcast their views to become a content producer. Audience sizes have also grown online, as a single Twitter feed or small online news platform can now potentially reach far more people than traditional media ever could. To help keep up, traditional media outlets are now integrating with online media, which has resulted in the added benefit of their content also becoming more widely accessible. Above all, however, one of the most significant opportunities for free expression online is the ability to reach and connect with specific niche audiences. This is particularly important for individuals living in an environment where they are not free to speak openly in person. An example of this includes LGBT youth who are able to hear from or speak to others from the LGBT community through initiatives such as the It Gets Better Project. Often unable to speak openly to their family or friends, an anonymous online audience can provide support that can be difficult to find in person – particularly when living in restrictive or oppressive conditions. It is the ability to connect with others, not just receive information, which has served as the Internet’s true democratizing element, and is a major asset to free expression. In 2011, the Arab Spring signaled social media’s coming of age. Its unprecedented use by traditional journalists, citizen journalists and protesters, shared breaking news, photos and videos around the globe almost instantaneously. CJFE’s own 2011 International Press Freedom Award Winner, Mohamed Abdelfattah, is an example of someone who connected the voice of Egypt’s protesters with international audiences. He began by publishing first-hand accounts through social media, which led to him connecting with media to provide direct interviews and reports as a correspondent on the ground. Abdelfattah, along with countless others, used social media to provide international audiences insight into situations they would not have had access to otherwise. Of important note here is that this was not a one-way conversation. Take, for example, NPR’s Andy Carvin. He served as a “content curator” throughout the Arab Spring, and engaged directly with these first-hand sources on the ground. He, and many others, used Twitter to verify information from protesters, ask questions, and provide clarification on the situations that were being reported – all through Twitter. The increased use of digital technologies – by both content producers and their audiences – has completely changed the way that we distribute and consume information. INCREASED COMPLEXITY However, despite the benefits and opportunities that have come with the ease of communicating online, a number of complexities have also arisen, which challenge free expression. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is as pertinent now as it has ever been. The Article’s essence of free-expression advocacy – guaranteeing the right to speak, publish and broadcast freely, and the right to receive such information, regardless of borders – has not changed. However, the means of protecting and guaranteeing this right is increasingly complicated. Being online changes the parameters: the who, what, when, where, and why – everything is more complex. Global communication is now almost instantaneous, and national borders (although still relevant) are not the barriers to information and communication they once were. ON THE RECORD Adding to the complexity of online communications is the very public and recorded nature of online activities. Conversations that would once have been private can now take place in a public forum. From an angry rant about a boss on Facebook to endorsing a connection on LinkedIn, all leave a record long after they’re completed – and are far more broadly accessible than ever before. For better or worse. In a positive way, when Canadian journalists Saša Petricic and Derek Stoffel were arrested in Turkey in June 2013, it was a single one-word tweet by Petricic, “Arrested,” that set off a spiral of activity that would have previously taken hours or days to commence. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and the Turkish Ambassador to Canada, Tuncay Babali, posted public tweets calling for and discussing their release. These journalists would not have been able to let their family, friends and colleagues know instantly that they had been detained (and later, that they had been released) without the ability to post online. After the situation had been resolved, Baird publicized and celebrated their release by tweeting a photo with the two. Through Twitter, CJFE was also able to become immediately involved, directly addressing both the journalists and foreign ministers and calling for the pair’s release. Twitter allowed us and other groups to put public pressure on the authorities. It also provided a public forum to watch for updates. In an offline world, these conversations would rarely take place in public and would not happen in real-time. Similarly, in the very recent case of Canadians John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, detained in Egypt without charge, their friends and government officials have given a great deal of credit to the public pressure and social media campaigns for ensuring their safe release. But so what? It’s not a new revelation that the Internet speeds up communication and overcomes national borders. What is important here, is how it changes the actual dynamics of how people interact. There is accountability and self-reflection created in knowing that conversations are being followed, scrutinized and recorded. In the case of detained journalists, it leads to pressure for authorities to take action. In the case of individuals sharing opinions, it can lead to a fear to speak – afraid of the ramifications the lasting record could lead to. REAL PEOPLE, REAL DECISIONS, REAL CONSEQUENCES There is no doubt that new technologies have impacted our lives, changing how we interact with each other, obtain information and share our experiences. But we must not overlook the people behind the technologies, using these tools as a means to express themselves. These are real people, making real decisions, with very real consequences. The Egyptians gathering in Tahrir Square weren’t just expressing themselves online, but physically took to the streets, asserting their rights to freedom of assembly. Through their videos and tweets, they put their own safety at risk. Conversely, online actions and communications can still have severe ramifications offline. The Twitter joke trial in the United Kingdom exemplifies real life repercussions for speaking out online. Although Paul Chambers’ conviction for his menacing tweet has since been overturned, the events unquestionably turned his life upside down. Meanwhile, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, is currently serving a two-year prison sentence for critical statements he published on Twitter. And CJFE has also worked with Eritrean journalists living in exile who have been physically assaulted for working on websites designed to get news back into the country. There are countless examples of ways that engaging in public expression online has very real ramifications in the offline world, and that the offline world can impacts your digital activities. ONLINE PRIVACY: A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY Although digital technologies provide us an outlet for speaking out, they have also made us more exposed. There is far more information about our lives, habits, likes and dislikes, locations and routines available than ever. The Internet’s abundance of information is typically seen as a benefit, but our privacy rights – closely linked to freedom of expression – are under assault as online activity becomes ubiquitous in personal life. The Internet can often provide a false sense of security, allowing users to feel as though their activities are completely private. But in addition to the information we choose to share online, we are sharing even more information without our permission or knowledge. The recent revelations about government surveillance, started by whistleblower Edward Snowden, have shown how much information can actually be mined from our online interactions. Information is being tracked that we may not even realize. We are providing incredible amounts of metadata about our lives – such as our location, closest connections, daily routines and shopping preferences – and that’s without even looking at what happens when our privacy is violated through hacks or by government snooping. The knowledge that our private lives are under constant scrutiny not only poses a physical threat to those whose location and personal activities could put them in jeopardy, but also directly threatens our freedom to express ourselves, as we increasingly face the consideration of self-censoring our actions for fear of who might be watching. And even if we are able to remain anonymous in our online activities, the adoption of new technologies such as Google Glass, which digitizes its surroundings, may soon take us online with them – with or without our consent. We all have that one friend who refuses to sign up for Facebook – but like it or not, pictures of them have still been uploaded, and their face tagged. As our interface with the digital world continues to expand, the ability to truly go offline becomes a challenge. There can be significant costs to participating in online media, publicly or anonymously, which are becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. In Mexico, for example, the violence and drug wars have made it incredibly dangerous for media to cover important issues in the public interest except under cover of a pseudonym. However, anonymous blogs and Twitter accounts have provided an outlet to publicize information without identifying the writer. Unfortunately, this does not always guarantee safety. In 2011, the identities of two anonymous bloggers covering the drug trade were discovered. The pair was murdered and their bodies were put on public display along with a message to discourage others from speaking out. Despite precautions, the amount of digital information about us makes it near impossible to remain private or anonymous. CJFE’s 2012 International Press Freedom Award Winner, Rami Jarrah, put his life on the line to report from the uprising in Syria. Knowing the danger he would face if caught, he used the pseudonym Alexander Page to report for numerous international news outlets. He helped to spread the word of what was happening within the country when very few media outlets could actually gain access. However, Rami’s identity was eventually discovered, and life was put in real danger. He was forced to flee Syria for Egypt, where he continued to train others on citizen journalism, but was unable to participate directly himself, for the risks that he faced. LAGGING LEGAL FRAMEWORKS Even in Canada, there are certainly examples of a clear desire to suppress dissenting voices. In 2010, it was the treatment of media and protesters at the G20 protests in Toronto. In 2012, the student protests right here in Quebec resulted in legislation being passed which required giving notice before any public gatherings, and banned any facial coverings in protests. However, despite these examples, and numerous others, we don’t face the same immediate dangers for speaking out or challenging authority in Canada that people in other countries do. We have countless columnists, bloggers, and outspoken citizens who call out authorities on a daily basis, with no one raiding their homes or threatening their lives. When it comes to free expression online however, Canada’s legal system is currently grappling to determine: how do laws written for an offline world get interpreted for an online environment? The Supreme Court has looked at the issue of defamation, declaring that hyperlinking to someone else’s defamatory content by itself does not equate to defamation. (Crookes v. Newton) In the follow-up case (Laforest c. Collins), the Quebec Superior Court looked at the question of defamation when linking to one’s own content. The growing availability of information and the nature of conversations online have changed the overall understanding of free speech and expression. In one case (Baglow v. Smith), it was decided that there is more latitude for insults and heated rhetoric online than there is offline. (However, it should be noted that this case has been sent back for a new trial for further exploration of these issues.) Each year, CJFE examines the major court cases impacting free expression in the country in our annual Review of Free Expression in Canada., in addition to examining the rest of the free expression landscape in Canada (I have a few copies here if you would like to take a look afterwards). The legal structures of free expression online is a growing area where current laws need to be updated to deal with the added complexities and nuances of digital publication. Legal systems are showing that content regulation and free expression require a new set of rules to account for the online world, with copyright regulation and Canada’s Access to Information Act clear examples of legal models that have failed to keep up with digital tools. Just last week Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial information and privacy commissioners all issued a joint recommendation to modernize the privacy and access to information acts. We were once a global leader in access to information legislation, but now Canada’s outdated Access to Information Act has fallen to 56th place internationally, as ranked by the Centre for Law and Democracy this past September. PARTICIPATION REQUIRES ACCESS Despite calls for digitization and reform however, we have to be careful not to assume that traditional or offline media have been replaced. Digital technologies are not ubiquitous – a large number of people still don’t have regular access, or the technological literacy, to participate in online conversations and exchanges in a meaningful way. Although there are now 2.7 billion Internet users globally, that still leaves just over 60% of the world’s population offline. Even in Canada, the issue of access remains, as 28% of households still don’t have access to broadband Internet. This is particularly problematic in rural and northern communities, making for an uneven playing field in education and business. The benefits of free expression online fail to serve those who don’t have access, leaving them out of the conversation. We can’t take online communications as a given, or assume that traditional challenges to freedom of expression are no more. SO, WHAT SHOULD WE DO? The circumstances surrounding free expression online are increasingly complex, and we need to be aware of the intricacies. We need to be vigilant about our privacy, and stand up for our right to free expression. We need to continue to work to create spaces for people to connect, share their thoughts, ideas, and opinions without fear of persecution. CONCLUSION As the benefits of the Internet and digital technologies continue to present new opportunities for free expression, the challenges of defending this right have also grown increasingly complex. Is the world of free expression online a reflection of traditional media? Yes. The underlying challenges remain the same. Authorities continue to try to control messages, just as others continue to try and share important news and information, and have their voices heard. But the intricacies of the online world have added just as many challenges as opportunities. We must remain vigilant in defending and protecting this important human right, online and off.

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