Book review: Free Speech — Ten Principles for a Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash

THOUGH it has never held a less-than-prominent place in modern western thinking, the turbulent political and social events of the past few years, perhaps exemplified most clearly of all by the tragic and horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, have moved the issue of Free Speech — and by extension, freedom of expression — to the very forefront of our consciousness.

It starts with language. Human speech, Timothy Garton Ash informs us from the outset, probably emerged at least 100,000 years ago. “By age three, an average child can use about 1,000 words... by age six, 13,000; and by age 18, some 60,000... the equivalent of a new word every 90 minutes of its waking life.” It is, he states, “a defining attribute of the human.”

Yet Free Speech covers a wider span than the mere limits of language. As the poet John Milton put it when appealing against censorship back in 1600s England, “What ever thing we hear or see, sitting, walking, travelling or conversing may be fitly call’d our book.”

Part of the problem is that, due to an explosion of technological advances in recent decades, the world of the 21st century has become almost the definition of a ‘global village’.

“In 1970, 300 million air passenger flights were recorded. Today, it is more than three billion a year, or nearly one flight for every two people on earth.”

And of even greater significance has been the unlocking of cyberspace. In December 1969, the first message of the internet age was sent from a computer at the University of California to one at the Stanford Research Institute. The message read, simply, “Lo”, because the Stanford computer crashed before it received the final g of “Log.”

This faltering first step changed the world. In 2015, there were somewhere around three billion internet users, with that number growing rapidly. Estimates reckon that, by 2020, there will be some four billion smart phones in the world.

With the boundaries that separate us fast diminishing, our political, social, cultural, racial, religious and economic differences are rising as ever greater obstacles to be hurdled. “Thanks to electronic communication, what is published in Bradford will often be accessible in Lahore and vice versa.”

And it has never been so easy to either give or take offence.

In 1989, Salman Rusdie’s life was endangered because, in distant Tehran, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for perceived blasphemy. More recently, in 2005, a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, printed cartoons depicting Mohammed, which caused widespread demonstrations and more than 240 deaths (none in Denmark, and only one in Europe; the rest in countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya and Afghanistan.)

“A man publishes something in one country and a man dies in another,” writes Garton Ash. “In this disturbing way, we are all neighbours now.”

The reality, it would seem, is that free speech can only ever be theoretical rather than strictly factual. And the reasons why make for a complex web, because the main limits to our effective freedom of expression are set not only by the state in which we are currently located, but also the companies and organisations that control our mediums of communication, and the interaction between those companies and the power-broker countries like the United States and China.

More than midway through the second decade of the 21st century, the United States is still the loudest voice on the subject. “It is the most powerful country in the world, is home to the most widely used global platforms of electronic communication and has the most explicit, systematically implemented commitment to free speech.” In 2010, Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, claimed: “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to information and ideas.”

Yet it is not quite freedom of expression that America is pushing, because hypocrisies and double-standards inevitably abound (eg, in what has come to be known as the Clinton Paradox, which sees the US government openly criticise India for blocking sites that the Indian government deems dangerous, while at the same time retaining a virulent stance against WikiLeaks). Supporting technologies to promote the spread of good things, and attempting to suppress the bad, begs an obvious question: Who gets to decide on what gets categorised as what?

If the United States encourages the perception of itself as the benchmark for free speech, then China, that other towering world force, is generally cast as the villain of the piece.

Over the past few years, China has gone to virtual war with the mightiest of the online machines in an effort to monitor and curtail potential national security threats. As a result of the “Great Firewall” or “Golden Shield”, Google, Facebook and Twitter are banned across the mainland, agencies employ somewhere in the region of 75,000 people are believed to be employed as internet censors, and up to four times that number again are paid to ‘spin’ facts, and to push the party line. Yet nothing is simply black and white in this affair; Garton Ash puts it this way: “Rather than the American ‘we do it this way over here, and we think you should over there too’, (in China) it is ‘you do it your way over there, and let us do it our way over here’.”

Taking as his starting point the idea of proceeding towards a more universal universalism — essential if we are to live together well in this 21st century world-as-city — the author has formulated 10 essential principles intended to guide our way forward. Each is afforded a chapter and receives thorough examination but, in highly simplistic summary, they are:

1. Lifeblood — the absolute need for competing arguments and free and able debate on any given subject.

2. Violence — a refrain from threatening and using violence to achieve goals but also, just as importantly, a refusal to accept violent intimation.

3. Knowledge — the search for truth as an essential in paving the way to freedom of expression.

4. Journalism — an uncensored and trustworthy mediation of political, civic and intellectual exchange.

5. Diversity — a product and an enrichment of liberty, which accommodates a wide variety of views and offers an equally wide choice.

6. Religion — the right to faith, but also the right to question faith.

7. Privacy — worthy of the utmost protection, but not at the cost of close scrutiny when in the public interest.

8. Secrecy — or rather, the relentless opposition to secrecy, since it is a condition for the survival of free speech that any limits, on whatever grounds, must be open to public challenge.

9. Icebergs — a vigilant safeguarding to ensure that our communication is not being illegally manipulated, encroached upon or constrained.

10. Courage — the courage to be free, and a willingness to face the consequences.

A book like this needs to be read slowly, such is the at-times overwhelming onslaught of facts, figures and statistics. Yet, in terms of subject matter, and indeed core questions, it is an important offering, one that ought to provoke much inner reflection.

The research compiled here is meticulous, wide-ranging and well-considered, and ideas and theories laid out in a manner that, while dense and occasionally necessarily convoluted, is never less than readable.

Valuing content over mere style, the author has penned a genuinely compelling read that should appeal not only to scholars of the subject but to anyone willing to think beyond the simple surfaces of the world.


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