Sunday, July 04, 2010

Sunday Essay - Facebook, freedom of speech and the rights of others

Tikno, my Indonesian blogging friend, asked me to write on his post STOP the hatred war in the social networking site. Part of the post deals with

two opposing group on Facebook who mocked each other namely: "Everybody Draw Mohammed day (Indonesian version)" and the other one is "Everybody Draw Jesus day (Indonesian version)". As I observed on its language it seemed the both pages was created by Indonesian users. I saw it was clear that the hatred feelings on both pages still raging and releasing fracas on Facebook.

Tikno would like to see Facebook shut pages like this down.

To set a context, Tikno talks about some other pages including the original Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. This began as a satirical page that then exploded in ways its creator had never intended. Much of this controversy had blissfully passed me by, so I checked Tikno's links. Then I did a blog search.

As I scrolled down through the first fifty pages of blog links I realised that this had become a very big thing indeed, another incident that marked global fault lines in thought and beliefs. As I read the material, I wondered what on earth I could possibly say that would be in any way useful.

To begin with, I want to put the Muslim context aside. Yes, the specifics in this case link to Muslim attitudes and responses to those attitudes, but the principles raised are not Muslim specific. They apply to many other debates.

If you look back over history, you will see that all groups have values, beliefs and rules that they enforce in one way or another. Some of the most bitter conflicts have been fought within and between groups over points of difference that to later observers seem minor, arcane.  

At the end of the Second World War, a war dominated by questions of ethnicity and varying beliefs, many thought that the sheer horrors involved had invalidated once and for all certain old nostrums. Even as we thought that, the settlements at the end of the War actually played out the old ethnic conflicts, although this was disguised by the onset of the cold war. The cold war itself represented a conflict in beliefs, although these were secular rather than religious. The end of the cold war and the collapse of the previous Soviet empire unleashed another set of  ethnic and cultural tensions that are still playing themselves out today.

While conflicts over ethnicity, values, beliefs and rules have always existed, the rise of the internet marks a new stage in a process that began with the emergence of modern transport and communications systems. This process has jammed together very different belief and value systems, making difference and response to difference visible on a global basis. I sometimes wonder whether the world can survive this process, for it leads to vast incomprehension, as well as direct conflict on specific issues.

By their nature, all groups believe that their views are correct. This is as true of a modern secular democracy as it was in the most theocratic states of the past or indeed in Aboriginal Australia. The problem, then, is to find a way that will allow those groups to at least co-exist; unity in diversity is the way the Indonesian national motto puts it.

Freedom of speech is one of the most deeply held western values, one established through blood. Yet freedom of speech has always been a qualified right. You can see this in Australia today where Governments have imposed a variety of constraints on what we can say, write or publish. We don't have absolute freedom of speech.

These constraints fall into three main groups. Certain laws, anti-terrorism laws are an example, are intended to protect the state and civil order. Other laws, censorship regimes for example, are intended to protect morality. Still other laws such as defamation laws or anti-hate prohibitions are designed to protect individuals or groups. Some laws combine elements of all three.

The issue in all this has always been just where do you draw the line, for that line has varied with time and circumstance and between countries.

By its very nature, the internet including sites like Facebook involves global publishing. Governments have responded to this in two main ways: they have made producing or accessing certain material illegal, while also introducing technological responses to block access.

We can see both responses in Australia. It is illegal to publish or access certain material, while Senator Conroy's filter proposals are intended to block access to certain types of material.

One of the difficulties with the internet lies in the distinction between content and carriage. Unlike a book publisher who chooses what to publish and is directly bound by laws applying in particular jurisdictions, internet service providers including the social networking sites argue that they just provide a platform; it is the individual or organisation creating and publishing the content who occupies the equivalent position to the book publisher. This is quite important because the distinction lies at the heart of a free internet.

Having cleared the undergrowth a little, I want to finish with a small number of points that I think are relevant to Tikno's request.

To begin with, and this reflects my own values, I am a strong supporter of freedom of speech. This means that when it comes to Government imposed constraints, I am on one side of the spectrum.

Next, and this is a purely practical point, all those writing on the internet need to recognise that the apparent freedom is an illusion in that they are still affected by the laws applying in all the jurisdictions where people can access their material. This is not an academic point; there is already case law in jurisdictions including Australia.

Given my views on free speech, I am very cautious about proposed controls on things such as internet service providers or the core mechanics of the net such as Google search because of the way they affect access. However, I am not sure that Facebook is in the same class. Consequently, I am not sure that action by Facebook to remove certain material is necessarily a breech of free speech. 

My thinking here is very murky, but let me try to explain.

Facebook provides a platform in which users have freedom over content and access conditions. However, Facebook sets the rules and conditions of that use to create a whole variety of options. It can choose. To my mind, this creates a duty of care and also increases legal obligations.

One of the distinctive things about Facebook as compared to blogging is simply scale. Blogging centres on content creation by a single writer or group. While comments do exist in blogging, and indeed some blogs centre on their comments, there is no real equivalent to the public Facebook page whose sole purpose centres on the comments and which may attract a million fans. In theory, the page creator attracts the same responsibility as the blogger and indeed may be liable to the same penalties. In practice, the page creator may have little real control if indeed he/she wants any.

The sheer size of Facebook makes monitoring difficult. However, where problems emerge in either specific cases or classes of access, Facebook has to respond. How it responds is the issue. This may well involve removal of certain pages or indeed classes of pages.

It's actually quite important, I think, that Facebook properly address this issue. If not, it faces increased legal controls and risks.

In Australia, for example, the use of Facebook for bullying purposes has become a major issue, leading to calls for controls and penalties. Given the current climate in this country, and in the absence if change, it is only a matter of time before someone tries to resolve the problem through legislation.  

The problems that Facebook faces involves a mix of ethical and management issues. For example, people creating pages need to be held accountable for the consequent content in the same way that we bloggers are. Again, Facebook has to decide if there are classes of content that it does not want to carry. It is better for Facebook and the future of the internet if Facebook actually sorts the problem itself.

To finish with a plea. In a world where the internet is jamming us all together, I think it important that we recognise the importance of manners, of recognising the rights of others. Liberty is not the same as license.


Rummuser said...

Jim, your analysis is every bit as diplomatic and politically correct as I expected it. It still does not address the core issue of FB being used to whip up emotions. To start with, the draw the prophet momentum started with an innocuous cartoon strip producer being asked to withdraw a totally, inoffensive depiction of the prophet, failing which, dire consequences were threatened. Now, the question is, whose right to freedom of expression has been violated? And what was the response?

Such attacks on freedom of expression have been allowed to take place with impunity and I think that finally, people interested in such freedom are saying that okay, how many people are you going to threaten?

The fault lines of civilisation are now getting very clearly drawn indeed. Not quite Huntington had in mind, but much bigger.

I think that Tikno has got carried away by idealism. I am afraid, that he has got to get adjusted to a world which is rapidly changing into anything but.

tikno said...

I absolutely agree with you that we don't have absolute freedom of speech.
There is still a part of our society are not well educated to the same level to understand and filtering the things with the same way as we are. I believe that still many people, especially in developing countries are easily provoked. Since the Facebook pages is set for public then it can be searched and accessed worldwide via browser directly without having to login first to Facebook (unlike for personal Facebook account that usually we use it).

Maybe I'm a little idealist but my idealism is addressed to FB to remove such pages. I felt that I have to do a "little" moral responsibility as an internet user.

I still remember of your post titled "MF Hussein" at:

MF. Hussein (an origin India's painter) and his paintings that depicting Hindu Gods and Goddesses are naked. For this one, I agree that we don't have absolute freedom to paint everything freely which it may insulting Hindu religion.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana, I find this, FB being used to incite emotions, a difficult one. My starting premise is against censorship of any type. However, the use of FB as a conscious tool has worried me for some time.

I deliberately didn't dwell on the EDMD example not so much for reasons of PC, but because that's not been a very visible or important issue in Australia. The issues that have been most prominent here are the misuse of FB to cause damage to others (the bullying case, for example) along with certain types of pages intended to appeal to prejudice.

Some of these pages create the equivalent of an electronic mob, an instant group that behaves just as irrationally as the physical equivalent. So where do you draw the line?

The nature of the response to the initial EDMD raises different issues. If you want to argue that fundamentalism is a global problem I would agree with you, although my interpretation and responses may be a little different. If you want to argue that fundamentalism in Pakistan is a specific problem, I would agree with you.

In all this, I would suggest that there is a difference in the right of free speech, a right that I defend, as compared to the right to deliberately pour petrol on a fire in the name of free speech.

Anonymous said...

I think there is hope that the world will muddle through, whenever three such people as those above me - from differing cultures, with different personal histories - can politely discuss their views, and politely listen to each other.

With my highest regards to all three. kvd

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, KVD, from all of us! You may well be right. For example, when I write on Indian or Indonesian issues I think of Ramana and Tikno.