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Freedom of speech on the Internet

February 04, 2019

Every so often, the debate about Freedom of speech on the Internet comes up, while we must ensure that everyone has a voice and is free to express their opinions and ideas on something, we also must balance the rights of everyone to express themselves as well. This post contains my opinions on a few questions about Freedom of speech on the Internet. I hope you find it to be both informative and interesting.

What is Freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is defined as “A principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction.” (Adapted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedomofspeech). This allows everyone to have a voice. An important part of Freedom of speech is ensuring that a speaker is not unfairly silenced. In example, in many countries there are laws which prohibit inciting violence towards an individual or group of people. These laws ensure that those groups & individuals continue to be able to freely express themselves without the fear of violent retaliation. To protect Freedom of speech, we must also prohibit speech that would unreasonably infringe upon the rights of another speaker.

What is Hate speech, and should it be protected?

Hate speech is defined as “Speech that attacks a person or a group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.” (Adapted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech). Some countries have laws prohibiting hate speech, some of them only ban hate speech that incites violence towards a person or group, while others may include speech that directs any form of hate against a person or group. Reiterating that hate speech laws should not focus upon any specific group or objectionable opinion, but rather the law should focus on prohibiting speech that would unreasonably infringe upon another person or groups’ safety and ability to freely express themselves.

Should platforms like Twitter, be allowed to ban me for what I say? What about Web Hosts, Domain Name Registries, and other communication & publishing platforms?

The free market is a great regulator here and stops platforms from being unfair or unreasonable with their publication policies. The government does not need to intervene here because if a platform, web host, domain name registry, etc were to play unfairly with enough individuals or groups, people would simply seek services from other corporations whose values align with their own or start their own corporations and publish through them.

It is important to note that the biggest platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc) are publicly traded corporations, whose primary obligation is to maximize shareholder value. Banning people from a platform based on their opinions alone would lead to less people using the platform, reducing its ad revenue or sales, and lowering shareholder value. Therefore it is in a platform’s best interest to only ban content and users which reduce overall engagement with the platform.

Hate speech towards a person or group makes them less likely to engage with the platform in the future and likewise creates a vested interest for the platform to ban the content and it’s creator from using the platform in the future. The same concept applies to spam, harassing posts / direct messages, glorification of suicide / self harm, among other things which are banned by most platforms’ community guidelines (which you should read before using a platform).

In other economic systems (specifically systems without a free market), the government’s intervention on which content should or should not be allowed may become necessary.

Do Copyright Laws infringe upon one’s right to Freedom of expression?

Copyright is defined as, “the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same.” While Copyright Laws vary depending on the legal jurisdiction and the applicable case law, there is generally an exception known as fair use. Fair use means that you are free to quote a blog post when you are commenting on, or criticizing the views of, another author’s writing, when claiming fair use the work must be transformative. This protects the right of you to express yourself, and the right of an author to not have their work unfairly copied.

Copyright Holders are able to enforce their rights once something falls outside of what’s considered fair use and violates both their rights and the law. In example a Film Studio will often send Cease & Desist Notices to Torrent Sites which are distributing their works without a proper license. However enforcement actions can, and have been, challenged in court before, and most importantly there is due process of the law.

A larger discussion, is needed on systems like YouTube’s Content ID which automatically and often erroneously takes an enforcement action against the platform’s content creators. These systems usually (but not always) have little to no human intervention, and may run afoul of the right to due process of the law. Citizens and law makers must discuss whether such systems require regulation. For example, should YouTube be allowed to charge a per-takedown fee and profit off of the removal of content, should removals be taxed and the funds used to research and improve copyright laws? It’s far outside the scope of this blog post but it’s worth discussing.

However, since copyright law has the exception of fair use, I argue that copyright law itself does not unreasonably restrict one’s freedom of expression.

In conclusion

Freedom of speech on the Internet, and even in the real world cannot reasonably be considered absolute but any restrictions should be for the purpose of balancing the rights of all speakers, not to restrict the expression of a specific opinion. Government involvement should be kept minimal, and so far the free market has ensured that publication platforms play fairly.


Blog of Nathaniel Suchy. Student at Wake Technical Community College | Reverse Engineer, Software Developer, English & German Speaker | 🏳️‍🌈 Non-binary (They/Them pronouns), Asexual/Aromantic