Freedom of Expression in Digital Age

Freedom of speech has been considered a fundamental human right for centuries. From Magna Carta in 1215 to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the freedom to express one’s opinions has been given due place in historical legal pieces. However, absolute freedom of expression has its demerits; therefore, on the principles of prevention of ‘harm’ and ‘offence’ to the public at large, there are certain limitations that are necessarily placed on free speech.

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It is essential to understand what freedom of speech entails. According to Article 19 of UDHR, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes holding and reflecting views and ideals through speech or any other medium, without any fear or threat. This fundamental right is a guiding light for individuals and organizations working for human rights-related causes or in a journalistic capacity. These are some of the most high-risk professions because their words matter significantly by putting the interests of powerful people at stake. Indeed, freedom of speech is a powerful right.

With great power comes great responsibility. Absolute freedom of speech or expression could also become problematic. Words, if used carelessly, can ignite the flames of discord and disunity in societies and also put the individual rights of the citizens in jeopardy. Given these possibilities, Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that exercising the rights of speech carries certain special duties and responsibilities and therefore be subject to certain restrictions.

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The rationale for the limitations on free speech under ICCPR is based on: Respect for the rights or reputation of others; protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals. These are the areas if intruded with callous words that may harm the interests of individuals, directly or indirectly, and could also be damaging on a state level.

Since the drafting of UDHR and ICCPR, the world has immensely transformed. Although the aforementioned restrictions, as per the principles of prevention of harm and offence, on freedom of speech continues to be enforced, the emergence and domination of digital communication tools have further complicated the matter. The anonymity, discreetness, and plausibility of digital systems – along with the ability to communicate at a mass scale – has led to a new and more lethal kind of freedom of speech.

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The political war of words is now being fought on digital fronts, and spreading lies is one of the most lethal weapons. On pressure from civil rights activists, leading social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have devised policies and mechanisms to label and contain lies, especially of political nature. The tweets of Donald Trump were often labeled by Twitter as possible lies, and the former US president was even permanently blocked from the platform because of his continuous spreading of lies. Nonetheless, a major chunk of political fake news goes unchecked on social media.

Twitter had also labeled the tweets of the leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in India is misleading. Which led to a legal tussle between the government and Twitter authorities. The spreading of political lies is not only confined to Twitter, a European non-governmental organization, EU Disinfo Lab, unearthed a consortium of fake websites being operated from India against the interests of its neighbor, Pakistan. Such a systematic mechanism of spreading lies demands the attention of the international community.

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When some states are spreading lies against some; some states are engaged in misinformation by altering the flow of digital information. China has been continuously alleged by the western media of censoring international news which it considers against its interests. The citizens are not only being deprived of access to information, they are also not allowed to freely access the social media applications being run from the US such as Facebook and Twitter. This can constitute the exploitation of limits on free speech.

Blocking and censoring of information is not only carried out by the states, some Big Tech companies are also acting as digital dictators. The massive access to private and public information and control over public discourse have made Twitter, Facebook, and Google giants who have preferred themselves align with the powerful oppressors against the weak. At the times of conflict involving the people of Palestine and Kashmir, those calling against the aggression of Israelis and Indians had to face censorship and loss of accounts. The social media accounts were automatically blocked to suppress the voices.

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Public trolling and digital harassment are other kinds of evils that are associated with freedom of speech on digital platforms. People of marginalized communities and genders and often mistreated and vilified on social media, and they find it difficult to report such unjust acts. Such trolling and harassment may often prove fatal. There have been cases where victims of digital harassment have tries to take their own life because of helplessness. Although there are laws to control cyber behaviors, the onus lies in the companies administering these platforms. A mechanism of cooperation may be devised between the corporations and law enforcement agencies to curb online harassment.
The digital age is challenging for individuals as well as states. International treaties and laws such as UDHR and ICCPR were drafted and signed on to meet the challenges related to civil and political rights of an earlier era. It is high time that the international community comes together to agree upon a system to prevent the exploitation of digital platforms. It is necessary that limits should be placed, with the consensus of the international community, on freedom of speech and digital spaces.

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In conclusion, freedom of speech is a fundamental human right but certain limitations are imposed on it to avoid exploitation. These limitations ensure that everyone remains dignified and their sentiments remain unhurt. The emergence of advancements in communication technologies has brought disruption regarding these restrictions. Which calls the international community to rethink the notions of freedom of speech. The threats are emanating from digital dictators as well as the states unduly suppressing the rights ensured by the UDHR.

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This Opinion is written by Hannan Saghar Malik. He can be reached at @Hannanmalic (Twitter). 

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