Are there limits to freedom of online expression?
By Konstantinos Kakavoulis
Can I express whatever I think or believe anywhere on the Internet? Are there limits in this right?
If you expect that in the end of this article you will read that the limits of online expression range from point A to point B, you will be disappointed. However, if you continue reading until the end, you will realize that there are limits to freedom of online expression and that they are clear.
“It is not an exaggeration to claim that the content of the Internet varies as much as human thought”
These words are part of the landmark decision of the US Supreme Court, Reno vs. American Civil Liberties Union. Based on this thought, the Supreme Court decided that freedom of online expression enjoys the same protection with oral or written speech.
Of course a US Supreme Court decision does not have any impact on the Greek legal order.
Nevertheless, the aforementioned quote of this decision expresses a global truth. Freedom of online expression is not a new right, born with the creation of the Internet.
Freedom of online expression is an aspect of the right to freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression is a universal, but also relevant right. It is protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 19, the European Convention on Human Rights Article 10 and, as far as Greece is concerned, under Greek Constitution Article 14.
However, freedom of expression is not unlimited. Everyone has the right to express freely his opinion anywhere and at any time, as far as he/she does not violate the rights of others or the public. Therefore, freedom of online expression has limits: respecting the rights of others.
You are now probably thinking: “So, everything that is now on the Internet in the name of freedom of online expression does not violate the right of any third person?
Do racist and sexist comments, existing mainly on social media and as commentary in various sites, not infringe any right? Is bullying or the -so famous recently- fake news protected under freedom of online expression?
The answer is clear: NO
While racist comments are easily conceived by everyone, it is not equally easy to understand the fakeness of some news on the first sight. Therefore, there must be someone to decide on this, as well as on whether this news is protected under freedom of expression.
The only one who could do so with significant chances of success is the judge. However, it is not possible to expect from the judges to decide if everything that appears every day on the Internet is protected under freedom of expression.
The content production rate on the Internet is excessively bigger than the one that the highly-skilled and properly-educated judiciary can follow. Judges should definitely decide on the most important cases.
But who will check the limits of freedom of online expression on the rest of the cases?
The big Internet corporations (such as Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc.) have developed algorithms to track and erase content, which violates the rights of other users of rights of the public.
These algorithms have been very effective in regards to tracking and erasure of racist or sexist content, using computer vision to recognize photos which depict such content. They have also achieved in restricting bullying or hate speech.
The counterargument in such cases is that these companies establish in this way the right to freely censor content; this is a realistic risk.
What should be done in these cases is striking a fair balance between the right to privacy, freedom of expression, the right to conduct business, the right to a fair trial, as well as the necessity to combat hate speech, racist, sexist, false and any other form of bad speech.
Such a balance should be made on a case-by-case scenario and should not be done in a general fashion. It is obvious that this is far from being easy.
What we should all understand is that the Internet offers us unlimited opportunities. Under no circumstances does the right to violate the rights of other persons “because we enjoy freedom of expression” belongs to these opportunities.
In the words of Nelson Mandela:
“To live free does not mean to live without chains, but to live and behave in a way which respects and endorses the freedoms of others”.
Freedom of expression is not protected solely in the name of legality. It is mainly protected to protect the values expressed in a society.
The first and most important thing we should learn is that freedom of online is expression is not absolute. It has limits; and it is not only my freedom of online expression or yours that has limits.
There are limits to the freedom of online expression for all Internet users. This happens because without limits, it will cease to exist; not only freedom of online expression, but also the Internet as we know it. And this is something that -I at least- have not met anyone who wants it.