Internet Free Speech Faces Grim Future

The world does not share America’s reverence for free speech, and that is becoming a problem for First Amendment supporters at home in the United States. The issue is exacerbated by the move to internationalize internet control, scheduled to be finalized in November.

Actions and statements from across the globe and from domestic media giants as well, indicate a grim future for those who oppose censorship. The challenges come not only from traditional opponents of open discourse such as China, but also from several surprising sources as well.

The technical website Phys.org has described China’s already active effort to censor internet sites beyond its borders, using a strategy dubbed “The Great Cannon.” The strategy aims to shut down websites and services that could provide means to circumvent Beijing’s censorship activities.  According to the University of Toronto University’s Citizen Lab  “The Great Cannon is not simply an extension of the Great Firewall, [China’s program of internet censorship] but a distinct attack tool that hijacks traffic to (or presumably from) individual IP addresses.”

Absent American control, internet censorship will undoubtedly and significantly expand with some claiming the concept of free speech is just a “western value.”

Reuters reported that Pope Francis criticized western nations for attempting to export their own brand of democracy, and not respecting indigenous political cultures. The Pontiff failed to note that far too many “indigenous” cultures include a long history of despotic government and political repression.

Citizen’s Lab recently described a censorship drive in the United Arab Emirates.  “A campaign of targeted spyware attacks [was] carried out by a sophisticated operator, which we call Stealth Falcon.  The attacks have been conducted from 2012 until the present, against Emirati journalists, activists, and dissidents.  We discovered this campaign when an individual purporting to be from an apparently fictitious organization called “The Right to Fight” contacted Rori Donaghy.  Donaghy, a UK-based journalist and founder of the Emirates Center for Human Rights, received a spyware-laden email in November 2015, purporting to offer him a position on a human rights panel.  Donaghy has written critically of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government in the past, and had recently published a series of articles based on leaked emails involving members of the UAE government. Circumstantial evidence suggests a link between Stealth Falcon and the UAE government.”

According to research in a book by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Businessand the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper,  “The majority of the world’s internet users encounter some form of censorship – also known by the euphemism “filtering” …On the Chinese internet, you would be unable to find information about politically sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square protests, embarrassing information about the Chinese political leadership, the Tibetan rights movement and the Dalai Lama, or content related to human rights, political reform or sovereignty issues…Ideology and religious morals are likely to be the strongest drivers of these collaborations. Imagine if a group of deeply conservative Sunni-majority countries – say, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and Mauritania – formed an online alliance and decided to build a “Sunni web”… in … Iran..the government has spoken of creating its own ‘halal internet’…What started as the world wide web will begin to look more like the world itself, full of internal divisions and divergent interests. Some form of visa requirement will emerge on the internet.”

Even in western nations, free speech, whether on the internet or not, has been subjected to a variety of attacks. Some at the hands of government officials and some by terrorists. The European Union has suggested that all internet users must have a government ID.

European outlets in particular have found themselves looking over their shoulder in reporting on issues involving Islamic extremism, exemplified by the 2015 Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris.

The Tower, a U.K. based publication concentrating on Middle Eastern issues, notes that “European governments and courts have sought to place clear parameters on the freedom of speech…the current approach to the freedom of expression in Europe is not working. … A ban on bad speech is but a substitute for an open confrontation with it. We are weakened as a society by laws that tell us what we can or cannot hear or say. The regulation of free speech in order to prevent harm has done more harm than good. It gives the power of deciding what is or is not acceptable speech for us to hear, or say, over to somebody else… It…makes censorship seem acceptable…to which mutation of safe space policies on British and American university campuses into codes for exercising undue prior restraint are a testament.”

The population within European democracies at least recognizes the slid to censorship they are enduring. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to initiate prosecution of satirist Jan Böhmermann at the request of Turkish President Erdoğan for “insulting” comments made in a poem, a firestorm of protest forced her to back down.

The United States itself has not been immune to attacks on free speech. Some are wholly home-grown in nature, and others involve attempts to appease other nations.  Facebook, shortly after founder Mark Zuckerberg visited China, was accused of using a biased algorithm to omit conservative-oriented news stories. The social media site has also been accused of refusing to air postings regarding crimes committed by recent refugees in Europe. Twitter has suspended an account parodying Russia’s Putin.

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