Digital Myth: Freedom of Data as Freedom of Expression

Digital Myths: #7 – Don’t abuse freedom of speech; some have made great sacrifices for that right.

Freedom of expression is the right to express your own opinion without censorship or fear of punishment. It is a fundamental right, recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and elsewhere. It is a cornerstone of democracy and the proverbial canary in the coal mine for oppressive regimes; restrictions on freedom of expression are often accompanied by other repression. Freedom of expression is a human right – a right that human beings enjoy. That is also why it is so popular to use for a weapon in various debates.

Many try to make the case that because some data is also speech, all data that travels in the electronic networks should be treated as speech. Far-fetched? Not at all; even the United Nations’ own Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, suggests in his (2011) report ‘that there should be as little restriction as possible to the flow of information via the Internet, except in few, exceptional, and limited circum stances prescribed by international human rights law.’

If you accept that, freedom of expression is not a right that only human beings enjoy, but also machines because a lot of the data online comes from machines and not people. By 2020, more data traffic will be generated by machines than by people, according to a report from Cisco. If you accept that, the status reports from the traffic lights on your street corner and the data stream from the engines on a Boeing 747 have the same protection as the literary works of a dissident author in an oppressive regime. Even crime – online drug or weapon sales, money laundering, stolen credit card data or passwords – regardless of the content, intention, sender or receiver: if it’s online, it’s speech. Absurd does not even begin to describe it.

Freedom of speech is not an absolute. No jurisdiction is without some qualifications to freedom of speech, be it hate speech, illegal threats or libel, details vary, but the basic idea is the same: freedom of expression can be abused so some rules are called for. The free press has hundreds of years of experience of caring for free speech and abiding by the principles of press ethics, such as having facts confirmed by an independent source, giving whoever is criticized the opportunity to respond, protection of sources, editors’ responsibility for what is published (not individual reporters) … the list goes on. The democratic free press has solved a lot of the problems that the new media treat as surprises. For example, consider the difference between public and published (the former is information that is available to those who ask for it, the latter is packaged and delivered through the media), or take today’s scourge of hate speech in social media: in traditional media, editors filter letters and opinions, publishing material that aims to make a point and refusing material that aims to silence other voices, perhaps demanding the sender confirm their identity (as a protected source, guaranteeing anonymity). In social media abuse is reported and, at least in theory, subject to retrospective action by the network owner. You don’t need to check many Twitter hashtags to see the difference. (This is not to say the traditional editor role is the only solution; many online forums work perfectly well with user moderators, for example). But all these shades of grey, based on centuries of accumulated experience of mass media, are lost if one sees all data traffic as speech.

Freedom of speech was won only after great sacrifice and with great courage.

Freedom of speech was won only after great sacrifice and with great courage. In my native Sweden, one journalist, Anders Lindeberg, was sentenced to death for lèse-majesté (offending the crown) but the King realized it would look bad if the sentence was carried out and offered to change it to three years in prison. Lindeberg refused and left prison only after the warden had tricked him into leaving the cell and locked the door to stop him from returning. Lindeberg’s editor, Lars Johan Hierta, had his daily paper Aftonbladet (“Evening Paper”) declared illegal repeatedly by the King, but every time returned under a new name: the 2nd Aftonbladet, the 3rd Aftonbladet and so on. In the end, the King conceded and a big step toward free press was won. Similar anecdotes exist in many countries. Also in our day and age, journalists are killed or imprisoned by dictators, such as the Swedish-Eritrean Dawit Isaak who has been jailed for more than 14 years without trial, or the Russian reporter and regime-critic Anna Politkovskaja, shot dead in the lift of her apartment building in October 2006. Freedom of speech is literally a matter of life and death.

The digital world has more to learn from journalism. At a hearing in the European Parliament in January 2016, Mike Holderness was one of the speakers. Holderness is a British freelance journalists who is involved in reporter unions. I asked him if all data could be regarded as speech. He said that there is a lot of data, and his job as a journalist is to make it understandable. Take a scientific paper, for example: he would have to interpret that to make it useful for the reader. That is the difference between data and speech. Holderness said this just before the Panama Papers leak, but who could have wished for a better example? Hundreds of reporters working together, 11.5 million files: releasing it all in its raw form would have been useless, but thanks to the hard work of interpreting the data, translating it into something accessible, packaging and delivering it in a comprehensive way, the scoop toppled governments in several countries. Raw data has little meaning – turning it into speech makes it powerful.

Freedom of expression is not freedom of data. Human rights are not protected by having no regulation of content online. It’s a myth, or even a purposeful lie.

Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.