Censored Part 2 — The value of giving offense

Google Ideas traveled to the Oslo Freedom Forum to meet with a diverse group of policy makers, artists, journalists, writers, entrepreneurs, activists, hackers, and diplomats. This is the second of a series of conversations with some of the world’s most prominent experts on the global fight for free expression, and the role that technology plays on both sides of the struggle.

Listen carefully the next time you hear someone on television talking about how “offensive” a comment or column or cartoon is, and you might be surprised how often you find yourself listening to someone attempting to curtail the right to free speech. It never seems quite so sinister when the person says so, but then again that’s partly the point. The right to give offense — which in some cases also means the obligation to take offense — is important precisely because it’s often the first right to be abandoned, even in otherwise free countries.

Kenan Malik, an English author and intellectual who writes extensively on the history of Enlightenment values, makes the case that societies ought to embrace free speech culturally as much as they enshrine it legally. “When most people think about threats to free speech they think about government censors or writers being locked up… but there is a more insidious kind of threat which is the creation of culture which says it’s wrong to give offense.” A recent Pew Research Center study found that 40% of millennials support the government restricting offensive statements against minority groups, while only roughly 25% of older generations support such laws.

Kenan Malik is an Indian-born English writer, lecturer, and broadcaster.

Restrictions against the right to give offense often come in the form of so-called hate speech laws or blasphemy laws, which are usually described by governments as intended to protect minorities. But the cost of that protection is an erosion of the idea of free speech. Once we grant governments the right to decide what types of speech are permitted, and therefore what types of information are, or ought to be, available to citizens, the logical next step is granting governments the power to regulate the channels for that information.

Danny O’Brien, the international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of the world’s leading experts on digital rights, explains that a troubling trend internet governance is how many countries seek to centralize and therefore control the main architecture of their “version” of the internet. Many of the stated justifications for creating national, restricted versions of the internet depend on arguments about regulating “offensive content,” be it pornography or subversive political speech. Here again we see the notion of offensiveness being deployed as the pretext for censorship — this time in the name of national sovereignty.

This gradual fragmentation of the internet threatens democracy as well as individual rights. Larry Diamond, the Stanford sociologist professor of democracy studies puts is as plainly as one can. “You cannot have any level of democracy, meaningful civil society, hope of constraining abuse of power, and reigning in corruption, without freedom of expression.”

Larry Diamond is a professor of political science and sociology at Stanford University and an authoritative expert on the democratization of developing countries.

Unpleasant though it may be at times, offensive content on the internet is a crucial indicator for the state of free expression. That’s why it’s okay to give offense occasionally — it’s the only way to know for sure that we still can.

To hear more from Kenan Malik, Danny O’Brien, and Larry Diamond listen to our full interviews below. Special thanks goes out to Human Rights Foundation, organizers of Oslo Freedom Forum.