Has there ever been a stickier wicket than the concept of free speech? It's hard to balance in the best of times, but when tech giants and governments get together to decide what can be said, I frankly get nervous. And that's exactly what's happening in Europe right now.
We largely take free expression for granted in the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Europe—but even in the U.S. we can't yell "fire" in a theater and we can't threaten to kill the President (it's a felony). In Germany, Nazi symbols are banned, and in France, a large variety of hate speech is expressly illegal. Most countries in the West have some form of slander and libel laws—and this is just dipping our toes into the vast ocean of abridgments to free speech that permeate societies we otherwise think of as "free."
And don't get me started on the growing trend of precious snowflakes who believe they have a right not to be offended. That's eventually going to lead to nonsense laws, just you wait and see.
Free speech is one of those areas where I am way to the left. The least of our opinions must be the most protected lest we all lose the right of free expression entirely.
Here's how the fourth U.S. President, James Madison, put it:
I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.
Man, did our Founding Fathers have a way with words!
This subject is just as relevant today as it was in the early 19th century. For instance, there's a thing going on in the European Union right now where hate speech is being censored with the cooperation of social media and tech giants.
TechCrunch reported a "Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online" developed in cooperation with the EU, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Microsoft. That Code of Conduct is a playbook for removing "illegal hate speech" from the three social media platforms and "Microsoft-hosted consumer services, as relevant," whatever that means.
We talked about this on Tuesday's episode of TMO's Daily Observations, where our theme was that stopping hate speech is a slippery slope. Today's abridgment is being aimed at radical Islam spewing hate, inciting violence, and recruiting through social media. Tomorrow it could be aimed at anything, from satire to religious commentary to insults against a head of state* to opposition parties to [anything].
This is far from an easy problem to tackle. It's thorny, it's subjective, and the only real guarantee is that everyone will be unhappy, angry, and put-upon.
*Just kidding: we don't have to wait for tomorrow on that head of state issue because it's a thing today, thanks to an antiquated law in Germany being exploited by the precious megalomaniac in charge of Turkey.
Next: China and Shades of 50 Million Shades of Gray