25 March 2021

Freedom of speech (internet)


Freedom of speech (internet)


Topic proposd by Sara

Essay by Lawrence


The importance of free speech is not when we have something to say and saying it. But rather when we are prevented from expressing our opinion.


Free speech is a fundamental right recognized by the United Nations under Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”


It’s a pity that two of the five permanent members of the UN completely prevent freedom of opinion and the UK has most of the traditional media outlets under the control of the extreme right wing government.


Having said that, freedom of expression is just as important as free speech. This is because legal systems take this term to mean the right “..to seek, receive and impart information and ideas…” we do not only have a right to express our opinion but we also have the right to receive information and the right to share our opinions.


But how should we interpret the right to be informed? No doubt this does not mean that we should have access to state military secrets, or even industrial intellectual property, everyone recognizes that such secrets are not in the interest of anyone. However, freedom to access information does include how those in power exercise that power: i.e. accountability and transparency. And most especially we have a right to know about the abuse of the human rights of others.


What is more important for us is whether the right to be informed is also a duty to be informed? In everyday life the legal system is there to hold people to account for falsehoods, for example in sale of goods, defamation, verbal aggression, maybe in the form of breach of the peace, and the use of threatening behaviour. And if this wasn’t serious enough, in functioning democracies, incitement, hatred speech and racial abuse are subject to criminal investigation. Hence, in freedom of speech, the freedom part is (ought to be) guaranteed by the powers of the state, but the speech part is our responsibility.


Free speech and freedom of expression are not only threatened by those in power, but also by normal subtle manipulation of information. When we think of freedom of speech we usually think of criticising our government or someone criticising our favourite political party.


A more serious threat to freedom of information is in science which fully integrated on the internet both for doing science and support services. It would be safe to say that today communication in science is mainly done digitally and most of that information goes through the open internet.


Many if not most scientific papers are sold on a for profit basis, when in most cases these publications are the result of public money investments. This implies that access to information is limited because of financial costs even though some journals make important papers free or free after a period of time: the OpenAcess initiative is also balancing the situation.


Other aspects of this debate are the policies of journals not publishing negative results of papers or relying too heavily on the p=.05 value.  The data from research projects can be manipulated to reach a significant result through p-hacking. Luckily there very few people manipulate data but on a world wide scale this might be relevant. But if we have a right for information we should have the right to receive unbiased information.


But it is the implication of not publishing negative results that is most controversial. For example, if out of ten research projects two results are positive and published and eight were negative results and not published: what is the reality about the project? The offending part is that scientists work on a similar project would not know about the eight negative results. Does this breach the right to be informed and correctly informed? And is unrecorded information the same as not making information available?


In the context of our topic, the internet should not be different for our topic. Just because the internet is a new “media and regardless of frontiers” it does not mean we can suspend rights and obligations.


The internet, however, introduces some new factors. The most important is that practically everyone has access to the internet (e.g. social media) to share their opinions with a relevant number of people: relevant meaning more people that one can meet at the pub. But that opinion is there forever and for people to access at will: it also means that the authorities can access that information. And for practical purposes fake and false information put on social media is no different than malicious gossip.


The problem is that we are not really trained to express our opinions on the internet. It’s one thing expressing opinions with friends and another broadcasting to the rest of the world. Consider the “Trump debacle” on twitter: Trump was a good example of using the internet without a clue or disregard on how to use it. But should reckless use of the internet only be “punished” when people are prominent and famous?  


However, the internet does give us immediate access to information, for example it took me less than 60 seconds to find the actual wording for Article 19: about 40 seconds to remember there was such an article and 10 seconds to get the link to the UN*. The point is that it is now a pressing issue on whether we have a duty to be informed before posting on social media. The Trump debacle suggests that we do have such duty.


*Universal Declaration of Human Rights



Best Lawrence


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