Academics & Research

Internet connections bring free speech conflicts

With more than half a billion active social networking and social media websites available to the public, it only takes a click of the mouse to publish extremist, biased or prejudiced comments on the Internet.

Thursday in the Max Krost Hall, the UH Law Center and Anti-Defamation League presented a free seminar “Racists, Bigots and the Law on the Internet,” to discuss topics like free expression laws and limitations, the results of cyber hate and how Internet providers have responded.

As an introduction, ADL National Commission member Marvin D. Nathan and UH Law Center Dean Raymond T. Nimmer defined hate speech as abuse of the freedom of speech to target, harass or victimize a specific person or group because of their affiliation with a certain religion, ethnicity or orientation. He then asked the audience if these opinions are acceptable online.

“Free speech absolutists say that all expression, no matter despicable or offensive, should be allowed online,” Nathan said. “Others suggest that Internet providers should be flexible with the exercise of restraint under exceptional circumstances.”

“While the beneficial effect of the Internet has expanded the amount of information available to users it is also perceptible to many unwanted and unforeseeable consequences.”

Nathan cited Facebook as a website with some of the strictest rules that prohibits content threatening or organizing violence. To speak about some of these policies, Facebook’s Global Policy Manager Judson Hoffman took the stand.

“Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected,” Hoffman said. “We want what is now a billion people of all religions and nationalities and ages above 13 to use our platform to connect and express themselves freely, while still respecting the rights of others.”

“We will give everyone the power to share content as long as it doesn’t harm someone else.”

To monitor content, Facebook relies in a large part on users reporting other users for inappropriate or hateful content. The website considers each case individually and determines consequences – like disabling users’ account or limiting their permission to upload pictures – based on the severity of the offense.

“The way that we develop those rules basically goes back to the mission of the company,” Hoffman said.

Other members of the discussion panel were Chris Wolff — founder of ADL’s Internet Task Force and representative of the International Network Against Cyber Hate — and Central European University Center for Media and Communications Studies senior research fellow, Peter Molnar. Both emphasized the need for Internet providers to restrict harmful content.

“It’s impossible to come up with a more important topic,” Molnar said. “For me the most important lesson is to confirm a truth that’s transforming our political discussion about free speech today.”

According to Molnar, there are opposing views of how far freedom of expression should extend. The U.S. policy denotes that speech can only be banned when it threatens imminent violence. The European standard says content can be banned when it demeans a social group based on religion or ethnicity.

Nathan provided a simple solution.

“The best antidotes to combat hateful, bigoted speech are good speech and education,” he said.

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