Timothy Garton Ash on Free Speech
The amount of data internet giants have is beyond a Stasi General's wildest dreams


Leading political writer Timothy Garton Ash presents his ten principles for “robust civility” in a digital age

18 May 2017

Oxford Professor of European Studies Timothy Garton Ash presented his ten principles to help navigate the promise and perils of the digital age at Wolfson College earlier this week, at a lecture organized by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society in collaboration with the Faculty of Philosophy.

Sir Richard Sorabji, Fellow of Wolfson College and Professor of Philosophy, introduced the lecture, caricatured as “John Stuart Mill meets the smartphone” by Professor Garton Ash, in reference to the influential philosopher’s outspoken defence of free speech.

Professor Garton Ash began by outlining just how alien the interconnected world of today would be to that most influential advocate of free speech, saying that the internet had transformed beyond recognition the conditions for free speech in recent decades. The world we live in today is one of almost saturation access to the internet and ownership of smartphones, and thereby, one in which “everyone is tangentially neighbours with everyone else”.

It is this interconnected world that presents us with a multitude of opportunities and dangers, from instant access to the sum of human knowledge to fatwas and violent intimidation, or what Professor Garton Ash termed “the assassin’s veto”, whereby people’s lives are threatened on a daily basis for exercising their right to free expression.

The lecture turned to the increasingly complex issue of the erosion of privacy and the troubling implications for a constantly connected world in which “ surveillance is the business of the internet”. Describing the truly Orwellian prospect of the ‘Social Credit Rating’ currently being devised in China to monitor and record all aspects of its citizens’ behaviour – including demonstrable allegiance to the Party – he judged that China had indeed succeeded in its Sisyphean task of attempting to control something as nebulous as the internet, having built “the largest apparatus of human censorship in history”.  


China has succeeded in building the largest apparatus of human censorship in history


Perhaps the most influential of these global internet giants, Facebook – which has more monthly users (1.9 million) than people live in China, the most populace country on earth – is, in effect, “a privately owned public sphere”, which, each day, makes decisions about what you can and can’t see based on criteria that are entirely non-transparent and which you can do nothing about.

Introducing the central framework for his lecture, Professor Garton Ash described his ten principles for a connected world as an attempt to marry liberal and pluralistic ideals in answer to two fundamental questions:

1) How free should free speech be? and

2) How should free speech be?

He argued that the way to combine freedom and diversity is to have more but also better free speech, countering phenomena such as vitriolic abuse and fake news through reasoned counter argument rather than attempts to suppress or censor it.

In order to arrive at a means to “agree on how we disagree” across all cultural divides, Professor Garton Ash recounted the inception of his unique, thirteen-language global conversation and online research project, freespeechdebate.com. He described this as a transcultural not intercultural project, with the aim of devising a set of principles that could be accepted across cultures, drawing from each but transcending the differences that divide them.

In the effort to interrogate how best we should self-regulate our own speech acts “with robust civility”, Professor Garton Ash explained that he found the Western tradition to have much less to say on such an enterprise than other, particularly Oriental traditions, such as the Buddhist concept of ‘right speech’, which reaches to “a more universal universalism”.

Closing the lecture, Professor Garton Ash made the observation that free speech is under greater attack now than it was five years ago, owing to a kind of global anti-liberal counter-revolution that was actively seeking to reverse liberal and plural advances of recent years. For this reason, a global conversation about the principles that should guide our interactions in today’s connected world is more important than ever.

Inviting the audience to reflect on the ten principles and to join in this conversation, a protracted Q&A session ensued, with a lively interrogation of Principle 6 on religion, but which also covered the implications of political currents of recent years, including the rise of fake news and the effort to subvert the democratic process, and the implications of counter-terror measures on freedom of expression.

A podcast of the lecture will be available to download next week.

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