Blog Post

What is Free in Free Speech?

So Twitter can hide some tweets, and does, and will continue to do so, now with a toothpick precision to tailor its approach according to the law of the land (or landline) where the 140 character chirp has been posted. And everyone is up in arms and ready to boycott the addictive site for… a day.

The First amendment is violated (as if it applied universally on the globe)! Freedom of Speech should be guaranteed and is the essence of the Internet! The C word is dropped: this amounts to Censorship!

Well, I find it incredibly naïve, and rather disturbing for the state of our faith in political institutions and activism today, to contend that a privately owned for-profit company ought to be the warrant for universal freedom of speech. It also reminds me of the pervasive contemporary delusion that technology alone has the answer to the problems of the world (for instance, that the Arab Spring was “launched” through FaceBook and Twitter, when reports from Tunisians and Egyptians on the ground have repeated that people actually talked to each other, came together on Fridays in real, concrete spaces, took physical risks, in other words were activists of flesh and blood).

Of course we all want the Internet to be true to our image (and usage) of it: intellectually and financially free. But if within the Wild World Web you can find pockets of expression and creation that live up to this ideal, and political movements that thrive or survive thanks to the incredible access to information that it enables, it is pretty clear by now that the big players that connect us all—FaceBook, Google, Twitter…—are media platforms in a more traditional sense than we want them to be: like newspapers, publishers, and the pamphlets of the past, they deliver texts and information, but also create the conditions (and restrictions) of their circulation, and are submitted to or struggle with other instances that regulate the flow of ideas: laws, governments, and the market.

No one wants Twitter to serve as the political arm of dictatorships or Big Brother surveillance. But we should also reconsider the notion of “freedom of speech” at least as it is conceived uncritically in gut reactions against Twitter. The first amendment has been used and abused to serve the best and the worst: it’s been invoked to defend the rights of corporations (notably tobacco companies in the 90’s) to publish misleading advertisements and, more recently, to be allowed to fund electoral campaigns. It has also protected “crisis pregnancy centers,” which counsel women against abortion, from having to disclose what they truly stand for.

In a broader sense, freedom (of speech and else) is a more complicated, demanding concept than the right to say, publish, or do whatever you want. Any freshman taking Philosophy 101 has been reflecting on the demands of constructing an effective and just system of law that guarantees the rights of all, whereby exercising one’s rights is done at the expense of none. 

Needless to say, there’s no perfect solution to this equation, and different Western democracies have proposed different social contracts. How do we judge democracies: by the ability to publish anything, or by how many people can and do vote? Vote with your feet, not with your tweets (or not with your tweets alone).

Just because we’ve been used to uploading our thoughts and emotions “freely” (but at what other costs—of privacy, quality, rationality, decency) and immediately does not mean that we have an inherent right to do so nor that we should expect the private media we use to be the transparent interfaces we’d like them to be.

Twitter’s decision to apply, say, France’s or Germany’s laws that forbid the denial of genocides or punish heavily hate speech and calls for hate crimes does not strike me as a threat to democracy. Freedom of speech stops where the speech act itself becomes nefarious. I know: the problem is not with France and Germany, but China, Syria, and others (these countries don’t need any help from Twitter to suppress opposition, though). I still find it interesting to note that what’s free speech to one democratic country can be a crime in another.

I hope that Arcade’s editors will not “censor” my posts, but I do accept that they have the legal and moral responsibility to edit them, or indeed suppress them, if they were violating the dignity and rights of others. We might want to think that the right to self-publish is inalienable, but then we should push for shared public spaces on the internet that are truly public and collective, and not privately owned and operated. 

What matters is the right to think, and the duty to argue and debate. What matters even more is that “free” (free speech and free access) becomes a reality rather than ideal.

Cecile Alduy's picture

« Je ne puis tenir registre de ma vie par mes actions: fortune les met trop bas; je le tiens par mes fantasies. » Montaigne, Essais, III, 9, 945

A prescient definition of blogging, no?

Cécile Alduy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of French Studies at Stanford University. A former student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, she teaches French literature and film, with an emphasis on gender and ethnic studies.  Her research interests include Renaissance literature and culture, the history of the body, poetry, cognitive theory, and more generally how we make sense of the world.