Amnesty Sweden is currently running an article marathon on Free Speech. I find that a little odd, for reasons I will return to. In either case, I have been passed the torch by Dr. Spinn, and give my thoughts here.
Freedom of speech is sometimes described as the freedom to utter any opinion you like. I disagree strongly. That component is necessary, but it is far from sufficient to constitute freedom of speech.
Another component is necessary beyond the mere power of voice, one which is the real trick getting in place in any society.
Freedom of speech is not just the freedom to speak one’s mind. It is the freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of retaliation, now or at any time in the future.
This is a huge difference between these two, and in the latter truer sense, we don’t have perfect freedom of speech in any country, yet. It is still a goal we need to strive for. It is just not authorities that may crack down on uncomfortable or irreverent opinions; the public may be just as harsh a judge when somebody challenges a stigmatized — falsely held, but still stigmatized — “truth”.
This is an article in Amnesty’s Article Writing Marathon on Free Speech. I was passed the torch by Dr. Spinn, here, and I pass it further on to Josh (the guy with the sledgehammer), who lives here.
In such circumstances, it is the role of government to suppress those people and activities who would make people feel threatened by stating opinions that are out of line with commonly held beliefs. And doing so is very necessary, indeed paramount: everything we believe in modern, secular countries today has been the subject of not just ridicule, but persecution, at some time in history.
I am sure all of us can imagine a scientific finding, even if it was arrived at through the most rigorous study and scrutiny, that the author would not dare publish today due to the social consequences of publishing the data. This is a problem.
Historically, the antidote for this mechanism has been anonymity. People who have not wanted to become targets for uttering unpopular opinions, even if true or reasonable, have chosen to not announce who they are, but let the ideas stand for themselves. In general, this is a very good idea when battling stigmatized subjects. New technologies give those who can use them a better means of being anonymous, while those without that expertise have a harder time using their voice to challenge the status quo.
It doesn’t take much to sharply erode freedom of speech. There is a term for this; chilling effects. In most cases, a mere suspicion that an uttered opinion may come back to cause problems at some unknown point in the future is enough to think twice whether you should really state your opinion.
The copyright industry has been very aggressive in this particular manner, and has created textbook examples of suppression of freedom of speech. It is perfectly legal today to send out a threatening letter that you’ll take somebody to court if they don’t stop stating a particular (perfectly legal) opinion or artistic expression — and yet, the thought of just receiving such a letter is enough for many artistic expressions and thoughts to never be heard at all. It is for this reason — as suppressing free speech today carries no risk at all and threats with chilling effects can therefore be thrown around liberally — that I firmly believe that copyright and patent monopoly aggression must be criminalized. If it was obvious that somebody had no standing in their chilling threat, then the entire framework must turn against them, with the same range of penalties.
Simply put, stomping on free speech and art — for profit — must carry a price tag when doing it just on speculation. Today, it doesn’t, beyond the postage costs of the threats.
But it can be worse still, when government itself takes the right to erode free speech through creating FUD — Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt — through chilling effects. It’s not necessarily that it punishes people for saying bad things — it is enough that it publicly reserves the right to do so in the future.
Consider the following literary passage, where the name of a specific governmental agency has been replaced by the more neutral “Government”, and some verbs replaced with modern counterparts:
There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Government plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every communication you made was wiretapped, and, except when encrypted, every action scrutinized.
The origins of this passage may or may not be familiar. So why am I bringing this up? Because of the FRA law.
Not many people outside of Sweden are aware of this fact, but the above scenario is the law of the land in Sweden. In 2008, a law was passed that gave the government the right and the task to wiretap everybody in bulk without warrant or notice. They will be monitoring all communications — phone as well as internet — from as much as two million households at a particular point in time. The default changed from “you have a right to privacy” to “the government may listen at any time, and is likely to be doing so”.
The passage above is from the book 1984, which is why I am speaking of chilling effects to free speech and how absolutely vital it is that one may speak without fear of persecution now or in the future.
Protests against this law were widespread both in terms of people and in terms of their political origin. The Pirate Party coordinated a loose movement of basically all the youth wings at the time, but ultimately lost in what was a terrible political theater. The politicians selling out, after having promised to oppose, were ultimately very richly awarded.
The law is being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights and I can’t see it survive if challenged, being basically an abomination against the very concept of human rights. But that takes years and years — if and only if the ECHR decides to take the case.
So why am I bringing this up now?
Because Amnesty’s support for this law was instrumental in its passing. I used to be a recurring monthly donor to Amnesty, but canceled my donations sharp at that point.
These are the words of Amnesty’s solicited input to the commission-drafted law mentioned above, words of Amnesty’s which were quoted many times by the wiretapping hawks in the debate:
Amnesty International (Amnesty) considers the commission’s report to be addressing the potential problems in a very satisfying manner considering violations of the freedoms and rights protections in an adapted defense intelligence [the name of the commission, Ed note]. The issue of privacy is central to this commission, but Amnesty considers the report to address every difficult matter in the balance of interests at hand.
After one year of public protests and after the law’s ultimate passage, in the fall of 2008, Amnesty issued one statement that the FRA law has severe and unmendable problems regarding human rights and free speech, but has never done any kind of visible budget expenditure on the matter. That’s when the Amnesty brand stopped being associated with human rights in Sweden for me, and just became associated with “The Man”, no matter what nationality.
This is why I’m flabbergasted that Amnesty of all organizations does an article marathon on Free Speech. But hey, at least it gives us the chance to send the message loud and clear: we’re still waiting for your campaigns for human rights right here at home.