Yesterday, a French court decided that people on Twitter have no right to anonymity when posting xenophobic comments. This is deeply troubling: the court says that unpopular opinions don’t have the same protection from freedom of speech as popular ones. Further, and more troubling still, this is a pan-European trend.
The verdict yesterday attempts to force Twitter to hand over the identities of people who made racist and stupid remarks on Twitter. (Whether a French court has jurisdiction over Twitter is another matter.)
It is not disputed that the anti-Semitic remarks in question are easily regarded as plainly disgusting in the eyes of most people: they certainly are. But banning those political opinions is not learning from history: it is repeating the gravest mistakes of history and walking in its dire footsteps.
You never needed a constitution to protect popular people’s right to express popular opinions. When they say dumb things, nobody really minds, either. When stupid people express popular opinions, nobody objects, so no problem. Freedom of Speech exists specifically to protect despicable people who are uttering intolerable opinions, and that’s a vital protection.
As a precondition for functioning freedom of speech, anonymity has always been an important layer of protection for unpopular opinions. Opinions which has always been possible to say in the streets as a means of shaping public opinion, well, those opinions is no longer possible to say without risk of repercussion. That’s a very dangerous development.
Some people would argue that what you can’t say in the streets, you can’t say online. But this argument is a contradiction in terms: the argument is actually pushing for considerably less freedom of speech online. What we have is a situation where somebody said something dumb and irresponsible online, and was punished by having their anonymity broken. The offline equivalent would be that anybody could be required to produce a photo ID in the streets when they said something that somebody else didn’t like, and so, could be required to produce photo ID at any time. It is the equivalent of a papiere, bitte society.
You could easily observe how important anonymity is for awful, even seriously criminal, opinions. To take a high-profile example, the famous pamphlets arguing for the independence of the then-British colonies in North America were published anonymously. This was high treason against the British Crown, and not punishable by a fine, but by torturous death. If anonymity had not been possible at the time, the United States of America would not exist today.
Anonymity is a vital layer of protection for advancing society by challenging dogma through publishing opinions that were unpopular at the time, but turned out to be right.
Banning and punishing unpopular opinions, such as xenophobic expressions, is not learning from history. It is repeating the gravest of history’s mistakes.
We have learned in a horrible way that the antidote to trolls isn’t banning them into the caves. It has always been sunlight. The answer to threats to democracy can never, ever, be censorship, that is itself a graver threat to democracy. Rather, it must be sunlight, it must be openness. It must be more discussion, not less.
Today, there is a line where you can commit a crime by inciting another specific crime, and that might be a reasonable line to draw. But uttering political opinions, no matter how despicable or discriminatory, is still uttering political opinions.