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  • stormy

    On Censoring Twitter

    Adam Holland, January 07, 2013

    Abstract: We examine Jason Farago's recent paean to government censorship of certain types of speech, as well as his suggestion that Twitter get on board with censorship too; along with Glenn Greenwald's reply.

    We’ve written before about Twitter’s International removal policy and also about their run-ins with French hate speech laws.. The Berkman’s DMLP has more here.

    The Twitter/France/Hate speech nexus has recently gotten a lot more high-profile attention, first with this essay from journalist Jason Farago in the Guardian.
    It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but Farago’s basic stance is that from his perspective, some speech is so clearly beyond any imaginable pale that it is just common sense for a government to make it illegal or ban it, and for companies like Twitter to acquiesce and make it challenging or impossible to so speak. Fargo is blithely dismissive of the U.S.’s speech protections, and finds enough has changed with the advent of “digital speech” to make the idea of freedom to espouse contrary, or even hateful, viewpoints both quaint and damaging.

    Glenn Greenwald, in a scathing response, tears Fargo’s argument to shreds. He begins by pointing out how bizarre it is for a professional journalist to advocate for criminalizing speech, but goes on to describe Farago as merely the latest in a long line of hubristic individuals espousing “free speech for me but not for thee” because they cannot conceive that anyone might ever find their speech objectionable or worth banning, pointing out that at the root of every pro-censorship argument is self-flattery. To wit: “Nowhere in Farago's pro-censorship argument does he address, or even fleetingly consider, the possibility that the ideas that the state will forcibly suppress will be ideas that he likes, rather than ideas that he dislikes.”

    Greenwald is at his acerbic best when he asks:
    “How do you get yourself to believe that you're exempt from this evolutionary process, that you reside so far above it that your ideas are entitled to be shielded from contradiction upon pain of imprisonment?”

    It’s all reminiscent of the debate over increased search and seizure powers for the government, where supporters will, without fail, put forward some version of the canard:
    “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about. This will only affect the bad guys.”

    Analogously, it’s apparently all right to give governments the power to censor speech, because they will only censor the speech you don’t like. But what is that speech, and who gets to decide? But even setting aside the problems with deliberately creating echo chambers or filter bubbles of thought, there’s also the fact that it isn’t “bad” speech that critics of censorship are worried about, it’s bad censors.

    Whenever I’m told, as above, that I’ve nothing to worry about, I like to respond immediately by quoting Cardinal Richelieu.

    “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

    If a government has a reason to censor your speech, it will, regardless of how pure or societally desirable you think it is. That is, unless there are deeply rooted, inviolable social strictures and law preventing the censorship of speech, and maybe even then. See Rice v. Paladin Enterprises and Burson v. Freeman as just a few examples. See here for a more general overview of censorship in the U.S.
    The last thing an open society needs is to narrow the range of ideas that can be expressed in public.

    Here at Chilling Effects, we acknowledge that we are based in a country, the U.S., which has fairly absolute protections for free speech, (which Farago refers to as a “fetish”) and that our perspective on things may be colored by that cultural background, but regardless, we are completely in agreement with Greenwald that:

    “Criminalizing ideas doesn't make them go away any more than sticking your head in the sand makes unpleasant things disappear.”

    and with Milton’s Areopagitica

    “[T]hough all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?.

    It’s precisely for that reason that Chilling Effects is devoted to publicizing all attempts to remove online content, so that you, the public, can decide for yourself on the legitimacy of such requests and the action taken in response.


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