Internet does not give you the right to free speech

Social media platforms are trying to do their part to remove illegal content

By Shalini Verma

Published: Tue 10 Sep 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 10 Sep 2019, 10:40 PM

I learnt about the notion of freedom of speech in my civics class at school. But way before that I learnt to practise freedom of speech at home where my liberal parents encouraged me to have a voice, and more importantly have an opinion. We did not necessarily vote for the same political party or like the same songs, and it was all right.
My endearingly opinionated grandfather and I bantered regularly, sometimes quarrelled, made up, and argued yet again. But I was aware that free speech came with boundaries - we could not call each other names or drown out the other's voice. My father would often say, just because you are speaking loudly, doesn't mean you are right.
Cut to 2019, the meaning of free speech has completely changed. But this change did not happen overnight.
If the Internet was the great highway of free speech, social media platforms were the fast cars that let us say it like it is. In the free-for-all cyberspace, airing views and exchanging ideas was as straightforward as making a cup of tea. Anyone could do it. We started to learn the joys of sharing food and baby pictures.
It all seemed picture perfect until the mob appeared and started to hurl insults at those that it did not agree with. These are not just trolls; these could be your friends, relatives, and neighbours. Before we knew it, we were operating in a moral and ethical void. The subtle art of tongue-in-cheek satirical disagreements are dead. Now insults and personal attacks fly from all sides, which are not lost in cyberspace; they were shared, retweeted and institutionalised.
Who would have thought that fat-shamers or haters would be a thing? Provocations include personal invitation to leave the country; shaming people for being too old, too ugly, too frumpy and the list goes on. Mobs don't think rationally and often have a commercial interest. For a small amount of money, you can actually hire a troll to run a disinformation campaign against anyone you disagree with. 
Sadly, checks were not baked into the early versions of social media because the makers believed in the inherent goodness of humanity that would self-police and self-regulate against uncivil behaviour online. Or the network of friends would rope us into polite and courteous behaviour. Perhaps much more than we are at home.
But no one fully understood the power of anonymity, organisation, and money.
Mob action is not new in real life. Think Ku Klux Klan. In India, overzealous mobs would earlier get creative with their public shaming by smearing black paint on the victim's face and parading him in public. Sometimes, the victims were forced to wear a garland of shoes and ride a donkey. There are still mediaeval practices of women being paraded in villages after their heads are forcibly shaved, in a bid to publicly humiliate them. People can throw stones at someone for a small fee. All this is now happening online.
Opinions are attacked by online mobs that descend on a post with their full abusive might. This becomes even more grievous if you have a reputation or a profession to protect online. Journalists get heckled for their views so often that we have come to accept it as a necessary evil. 
Today, even the most vociferous guardians of free speech will agree that freedom of speech on the Internet has gone too far. Vera Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers, and Gender Equality contends that hate speech is a threat to free speech. Ironically, it's not the Gestapo that has put a spanner on our right to express ourselves, but rather the Internet's unbridled freedom has curtailed our free speech.
You can be anyone and say anything online. On controversial topics such as identity, religion and politics, the knives are always out. It is therefore easy to get out-voiced by indecency, incitement to violence, or sexual assault threats. In the end, you just back off because the discourse becomes much too indecent. Add fake news to the epidemy of online misconduct, and we have a monster that is almost impossible to tame.
Social media platforms are trying to do their part to remove illegal content by falling back on editorial moderation. It is an uphill task, especially for Youtube. But they are trying, nonetheless. In February of this year, EU heaped praises on Facebook for achieving 82 per cent takedown rate.
The old concept of free speech as conceived by Universal Declaration of Human Rights is no longer tenable. Law enforcement agencies in some countries put the onus on the victims. They advise them to stay off social media. It's like using a bandage for a headache.
It was inevitable that governments around the world would start to regulate and monitor online content to better understand public opinion and protect its citizens. We will eventually have a more universally accepted idea of the delicate balance between public discourse and moderation. For now, we understand all too well that freedom of speech is certainly not absolute and is always set in a cultural context and time.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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