Saturday, January 23, 2021

Curb hate speech without impinging on freedom of expression

Image credit: David Gothard


Social media are the convenient platforms for exercising freedom of expression. Facebook is a giant social technology boasting of 2.7 billion monthly active users while Twitter, a popular micro-blog, has 330 million monthly active users.

The expansion of internet facility has enabled people's access to these media. However, these social media are not out of criticism. The 2016 case of Cambridge Analytica, sheer hatred campaign against Rohingya in Myanmar, and live video feed of Christchurch carnage in New Zealand in 2018 earned huge disrepute to tech tycoon Facebook. These incidents alarmed the global leaders to pronounce that Facebook was endangering democracy by fueling hate speech, helping erosion of electoral value and breaching personal privacy.

Facebook was blamed of stoking hatred against Rohingya Muslim and the Christchurch attack was a horrible incident that the attacker went live on Facebook while shooting the people. It was indeed an extreme case of hatred. If social media like Facebook are fueling hatred of supremacists targeting any gender, community, class, culture, religion, sex how can these platforms be believed only as a tool to empower citizens and to democratize the system? This question needs urgent attention.

These incidents forced many countries and blocs to reconsider the role of social media platform and they even advocated regulating tech companies. At the same time, some countries have violated free speech in the name of curbing hate speech online.

Whether it is the case of misinformation or hate speech online or digital capitalization, European Union is on the front line to whet discussion/debate as well as formulation and implementation of policy and laws on it. The EU countries in the recent years have emerged tough against tech companies- even fining Facebook and Google over breach of various agreements.

In a bid to tackle hate speech, especially racism and xenophobia, the EU signed a code of conduct with tech giants Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft as early as 2016. The code has made the tech companies mandatory to remove illegal hate speech within 24 hours and disable access to such contents. The EU was asked to criminalize hate speech in the wake of rising hate speech by the extremists against migrants/refugees.

The UK's white paper on 'Online Harms' in July 2019, French law to combat hateful content, seeking cooperation from tech companies last May early this year, and Germany's effort to tighten the rule on regulating tech companies to curb hateful content in June early this year are important developments. Together the rights defenders are alert of not letting the rule violating other fundamental rights in the name of combating hateful contents spreading online.

Interestingly, at a time when the cross-border nature of internet has made it universal tool to connect the world and exchange ideas and knowledge conveniently, the same characteristic has put the jurisdiction of internet crime in complicated state. Policy makers, security agencies, civil society and rights defenders are equally worried over spiraling hatred on internet.

Discussions have flared up from lawmaking at home to seeking technological solution and applying international law. A case in point is of early 2000. Then internet giant Yahoo! had kept Holocaust memorabilia on auction in its website, which was taken as hate speech in France while the US protected it under the First Amendment of the US constitution. The varying court rulings in the France and the US on hate speech over same issue on internet were new problem on regulating hate speech online, drawing wider attention. Although the internet since then has come a long way, the above case shows how societal values and norms, culture and national specificity determine hate speech and the law on it.

One of the complicated tasks as various countries' experience show is the lack of balance between the freedom of expression and hate speech. While tilting towards hateful contents, the essence of free speech is jeopardized.  At the same time, difficulty to define hate speech might be arisen because of contextual variation.  In view of technology blurring boundary and warranting re-definition, all sectors concerned should be clear on hate speech and free speech, so that formulation of law would not draw criticism. Once we try to strike balance between free speech and hate speech online, the universal concept of free, open and safe internet can be realized.

Nepal's case

The Information and Technology bill, which is still under consideration in parliament can wipe out vagueness on the points like 'social networks', 'hatred', 'harmonious relations' are still demanded by the free speech advocates. Lawmakers can utilize the present time to study adequately on such pressing issues.

Moreover, with EU countries' activism on taming tech companies to curb hate speech, people in policy making level in Nepal could be encouraged to follow suit. But before formulating policy and laws that deal with digital sphere, adequate discussion and understanding of the subject is imperative. As the internet is itself a cross-cutting and trans-border network, the issues around it like hate speech, freedom of expression, privacy, data protection etc warrant engagement from multiple sectors ranging from lawmakers to technologists and security to right defenders. Similarly, hasty generalization of any incident equally shows dearth of knowledge or sheer indifference to the issue.

Published on 1 December 2020