Disclaimer: I work in Google's Policy Team, developing multistakeholder cooperations for internet governance & policy themes, hence I want to point out that all the opinions and ruminations on this blog are mine, not Google's.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Breaking Borders Award & Reflections about Freedom of Expression online

This Tuesday Google and Global Voices announced the details and call for nominations for the Breaking Borders Awards, which will honor activists, policy makers and technologists who make a contribution to develop the net as the global forum where netizens around the globe can express themselves and collectively deliberate and discuss ideas. In this post I'd like to share my own take on why freedom of expression is important and highlight some aspects regarding the potential of the net to improve governance and transform social conduct.

On the outset I'd like to set the scope regarding the importance of Freedom of Expression: Nobel economist Amartya Sen famously found that freedom of expression and access to information are fundamental conditions for development. In his analysis, no country in which information is freely disseminated and debated has ever suffered a famine. More broadly, political freedom correlates directly with economic success.

Let me now share my understanding of how internetworked technology advances freedom of expression and societal information sharing/management: One can distinguish between “factual news”, opinion and subjective contextualization.

What happens when reportage comes not from a select few professional sources, but from a multitude of decentralized observers feeding their social networks (and, incidentally, the public)? We see a dramatic increase in transparency—and, through the proliferation of sources, in credibility.

This “reported reality” (from neitzens posting their perspective on Twitter, YouTube, etc.) informed coverage of the recent demonstrations in Tehran and Urumqi. Such reportage will be still more important when, as well as covering breaking news, it brings transparency to institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program.

The other aspect of ”news processing”—analysis and interpretation—traditionally represented the view of an institution or, at its best, sought to deliver a balanced perspective. In times of blogs, social networks and other means of sharing your views online the information you publish defines your identity and how others perceive you; and it transforms and multiplies the original information.

The virality of information (the way it spreads and changes) has long been exploited by marketers and politicians. With the Internet democratizing information—putting a global publishing outlet and, more recently, a mobile live-streaming camera within every netizen's reach—you can not only globally publish your opinion but debate it. The process can have a substantial, and healthy, effect on citizen participation and decision making, and therefore on governance and societal dynamics.

The real pragmatic challenge however is not in the principle of free speech but in the hairy details of balancing it with other rights like privacy, and defining and deciding on defamation, hate speech complaints, etc.. All nations agree, for example, that child pornography should be banned. But individual governments have decided on highly divergent areas where national history necessitates thematic restrictions on freedom of expression.

If content is legal in one country and illegal in another, how do we foster the net’s potential as a global public space?

In my opinion there can, and should, be no final answer: human judgment and mores inevitably change over time. That is why I think two approaches should be pursued: To encourage the creation of national (and possibly international) expert bodies that transparently identify content which is illegal. And to create multistakeholder alliances like the Global Network Initiative, which has embarked on a step-by-step process to ensure good privacy and free speech practices within its constituents' online services.

Professor Lawrence Lessig warns us that the web—combining software (technological) code and legal (social) code—forms a perfect architecture of control. While we are very successful in building globally spanning internetworked technology on the basis of open standards and simple, liberal rules like “running code and rough consensus,”; we have been less successful at rooting our social code in similarly simple and liberal rules: those that nurture human rights.

With the Breaking Borders award Google, Global Voices and Thomson Reuters are looking for your nominations to promote good practices in freedom of expression online.

1 comment:

Madison Powell said...

That's an interesting post, Max. Thanks. The matter is really worth reflection.