The Internet’s Part in the Evolution of Free Expression

The internet has been a huge game changer for freedom of expression and has completely reshaped not only how we communicate, but also how we access information. Reflecting on the readings and cases from this week, it’s obvious that the digital age has both expanded and complicated the value of freedom of expression

The internet has really changed how we share our thoughts and who we can talk to. Before, if you wanted to communicate your thoughts and opinions you would have to do so by physically going out in public and voicing them or writing into newspapers or other print media outlets. Now, thanks to the internet, you can reach thousands even millions of people with just a few clicks on your phone or a computer. This democratization of expression can be very impactful, as the Access Now report mentioned movements in Hong Kong and Sudan have been able to gain international attention despite their physical and political boundaries thanks to the empowerment of the internet.

However, this accessibility and freedom also comes with many challenges. The same platforms that allow us to amplify our voices can also silence them through censorship, surveillance, and internet shutdowns. The Access Now report shows that shutting down the internet has become a way for governments and private entities to quiet people who disagree, especially during protests or times of trouble.. The Ford Foundation’s interview with David Kaye, explains how digital surveillance and the manipulation of online spaces also threatens our freedom of expression. The internet might seem like an open space for discussion, but it can also be turned against us.

That brings me to the question: Should there be a ranking of values and rights in this digital era? Personally, I think yes. Not all digital actions are created equal, and I think we should have a way to navigate it. In my opinion it should be as follows:

  1. Freedom of Expression: This should remain the first priority as it is crucial for all other rights. The ability to freely express our ideas and opinions is the backbone of democracy and as David Kaye points out, it is under attack globally. This freedom should not be absolute however, we need to include prioritizing the impact of one’s speech on others into this.
  2. Privacy Rights: After freedom of expression, privacy rights are also essential in the digital era. The ability to communicate securely and privately ensures that our freedom of expression is safe.
  3. Access to information: The right to access others’ opinions and information is crucial for an informed society. It is also part of what makes democracy work, it ensures that people can make choices based on many perspectives and with all the information.
  4. Protection from Harmful Speech: While free expression in first priority, there needs to be a way to protect individuals from speech that incite violence, spreads misinformation or is considered harassment. Promoting responsible speech and having recourse for people who are harmed by malicious expressions is a way we can steer away from censorship.

Although I believe a ranking system like this can help us navigate the challenges that the digital era imposes on our freedoms, I also believe that in order for a ranking system to work, there needs to be transparency and accountability. Sometimes there will be conflicts to balance between the values but with true transparency and accountability we can navigate the conflicts in a well-rounded way.

The internet has truly changed freedom of expression, making it more accessible and has introduced new challenges that require us to rethink how we value and protect our digital rights. The readings and cases from this week, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, highlight the continuous struggle to maintain the internet as a space for free expression while also protecting against its potential for abuse.

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