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For the sake of argument, let’s not have the argument about whether the EU itself is a bad idea right now. Mentally replace the words “EU Commission” with “a group of European countries that finds it expedient at times to negotiate as a single country.” That will keep us focused.
The Commission together with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft (“the IT companies”) today unveil a code of conduct that includes a series of commitments to combat the spread of illegal hate speech online in Europe.
The IT Companies support the European Commission and EU Member States in the effort to respond to the challenge of ensuring that online platforms do not offer opportunities for illegal online hate speech to spread virally. They share, together with other platforms and social media companies, a collective responsibility and pride in promoting and facilitating freedom of expression throughout the online world. However, the Commission and the IT Companies recognise that the spread of illegal hate speech online not only negatively affects the groups or individuals that it targets, it also negatively impacts those who speak out for freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination in our open societies and has a chilling effect on the democratic discourse on online platforms.
In order to prevent the spread of illegal hate speech, it is essential to ensure that relevant national laws transposing the Council Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia are fully enforced by Member States in the online as well as the in the offline environment. While the effective application of provisions criminalising hate speech is dependent on a robust system of enforcement of criminal law sanctions against the individual perpetrators of hate speech, this work must be complemented with actions geared at ensuring that illegal hate speech online is expeditiously reviewed by online intermediaries and social media platforms, upon receipt of a valid notification, in an appropriate time-frame. To be considered valid in this respect, a notification should not be insufficiently precise or inadequately substantiated.
I’m not sure how this story is related, or even if it’s related, but I note it:
A French Jewish youth group sued Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google over how they monitor hate speech on the web, highlighting the challenge — and potential costs — for Internet platforms to regulate user-generated content.
The lawsuit filed at a Paris court by the Jewish youth group called UEJF is seeking more clarity on who moderates social network posts and how it’s conducted. Together with an anti-racism and an anti-homophobia group, UEJF published a report earlier this month showing Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube deleted only a small number of posts flagged as hateful, threatening or promoting violence.
Points to consider:
We have some of the most powerful organizations in America helping foreign governments to suppress speech. Yes, they are private organizations, just like Ricochet, and what they choose to host on their property is none of our government’s business. In America. In principle.
But when do we ask ourselves, “Is the right to freedom of expression meaningful if these four private entities can control the vehicle by which almost all political speech and thought is now conveyed?” I submit to you that this is a question worth serious thought. The founders certainly understood the potential tyranny of an over-strong government. Did they give enough thought to the possibility of over-strong IT companies? Rhetorical question. They couldn’t have. So we’ll have to think this one through for ourselves, here in the 21st Century.
Holocaust denial is illegal in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and Switzerland. It’s not in America, obviously. Is your commitment to freedom of expression such that you think it should be legal for neo-Nazis and ISIS fanboys in America to spout off about killing Jews and infidels to their heart’s content? My answer is “Of course it should be.” We settled this one in 1977 in Skokie. (If your answer is “No,” stop here and explain why not.)
If your answer is “Yes,” do you believe that this is because it is self-evident that we’ve been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among them the right to say what we please? Or do you think this is just a contingent and practical American tradition?
If the latter, you can stop here. Makes things simple. But if your answer is the former (or something along natural law lines), do you think it applies to Europeans? If not, why not?
Do you think it’s possible for individual people to lose a human right because they are collectively responsible for a historic crime? Consider, in particular, Section 130 of the German Criminal Code. To the modern American ear, it sounds like the Barnard Faculty Lounge’s idea of paradise. It’s easy to be against it on principle. Until you remember how that law came into being.
In Holocaust Denial Legislation, Working Papers du Centre Perelman de philosophie du droit, n° 2008/3., J.D. Josephs surveys the origins and the arguments for and against laws criminalizing Holocaust denial. This is literally and metaphorically an academic debate; there is no chance of convincing anyone in Europe right now that these laws are a bad idea. Terrorism tends to make people think the idea of “natural rights” is a luxury and a frivolity. I leave it to you to read and consider the arguments on the “for” side.
These are the reasons he notes on the “against” side. First, there’s the principle of it:
The principle argument of those opposed to Holocaust denial legislation is entirely bound up with freedom of expression. It is one of the most fundamental freedoms of all in any truly democratic society, famously encapsulated in that well-known phrase attributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.
Second, and importantly, there’s the pragmatics of it:
In restricting freedom of speech to deny the Holocaust, it is argued, one is playing right into the hands of the deniers. The reasoning for this is the danger of unwittingly turning the Holocaust denier into martyr. Professor Evans, expert witness at the Irving v Lipstadt trial, explained to the author that the publicity from Irving’s imprisonment in Vienna in 2005 made him “something of a martyr for freedom of speech, something Irving ‘had no interest in at all.’” This is what can be referred to as the popular-hated figure dilemma. It will boost the denier’s popularity, generating an interest in his words whilst exposing people to his deliberate falsehoods and lies. In the Irving v Lipstadt case, the reverse was true. As unpopular a figure as David Irving was, he was the person accusing Lipstadt of libel. So there was no outpouring of public sympathy in Britain during or after the trial in his favour. In fact if anything precisely the opposite was true; one only had to read the next morning headlines for proof.
It is surely a paradox that David Irving, whilst calling for his freedom of speech to deny the Holocaust, went out of his way to suppress the freedom of speech of Deborah Lipstadt. However, many sectors of the public and press were very sympathetic to him upon his incarceration in Austria. As Lipstadt herself put it during the interview “when Irving was imprisoned in Austria, people who vehemently opposed him immediately sprang to his defence – some of them even asking me to do likewise.”
Furthermore, critics argue that by having such laws demonstrates a lack of confidence in historical truth. Making deniers important enough to warrant legislation, the argument goes, attributes to them a status they should not be entitled to. After all, as playwright George Bernard Shaw once put it: “martyrdom is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability.”
The pragmatic results of these bans may affect how I feel about the principle. It’s my experience that yes, making people into martyrs valorizes their disgusting opinions. This goes both for Holocaust deniers and other species of lunatic bigots.
But I just don’t know if I have the confidence to say, “Take the training wheels off, Europe. Nothing bad will happen.”
Do you feel entirely confident in saying, “Of course the Continent should mix its track record with the Internet, the political effects of which we don’t yet fully understand?”
Do you feel entirely confident in the moral wisdom of our IT companies?
Of one thing, I’m pretty sure. It’s a bad idea to announce that you feel “a collective responsibility and pride in promoting and facilitating freedom of expression throughout the online world” when you’re announcing the steps you plan to take to limit it. Why not say the truth? “We feel a collective responsibility and pride in promoting and facilitating some expressions, but not others.”
The arguments for this position are neither totally irrational nor disgraceful, and saying anything else is stupid. Promoting stupidity about a major point of political principle cultivates stupidity. I doubt it’s a good idea to make people more stupid.
(I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell you what all of this means and how it’s relevant to you, but I’ll surely try or die trying.)Published in