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Does Free Speech Have Territorial Limits?

Recently, demands by foreign governments, such as China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia that U.S. owned internet sites, including Google, Twitter, Facebook and Netflix conform to these countries’ laws on censorship have produced a lot of controversy, both within and external to the companies who are deciding how to respond to such demands. Among those making comments, a strong voice is heard for the need for these companies to  “stand up” for the American value of freedom of speech. This raises issues of whether this value is one that is relative to the country in question or whether it should be regarded as a universal value, i.e. an “inalienable right.”

The controversy with regard to internet-based companies is complicated, because it often involves at least two questions: should a media provider follow the laws of the country in which its product is being offered if those laws violate American values? and should a media provider provide information to the government of the country to assist that country in tracking down those who seek or post what they consider subversive material? These are two very different issues.

It is ordinary for companies who do business in countries that are not where they are located to follow the laws of that country. We fully expect foreign countries to comply with our laws in the United States as a condition for them doing business within our borders. Companies that do not do so have been prosecuted and punished by U.S. courts. But United States laws regarding freedom of speech and expression are broader and more permissive than any other country’s.  Hate speech based on race or religion is an example. While hate speech is publicly condemned and often censored by media companies, it is not illegal in the United States, and so we can have websites and media organizations that do post hate speech and are allowed to do so. Hate speech is illegal, however, in most European countries, including notoriously permissive Finland, where both hate speech and blasphemy of any religion are prohibited, France prohibits not only hate speech, but also insulting its flag, its national anthem or any public official, which is similar to Germany, which prohibits disparagement of the Federal President or state symbols and insulting any religion. Many European countries forbid Holocaust Denial. 

In China, Vietnam, Russia, and many Middle Eastern or African countries, freedom of speech is severely restricted, especially with regard to sexual content, criticism of the government, praise for alternative forms of government and, in many countries, especially predominantly Muslim ones, criticism of religion, religious figures or religious organizations (but this is also true in several European countries that are predominantly Christian). Many of these restrictions seem foreign and unnatural to Americans, but should we demand that they not be enforced against American companies that do business in those countries? The arguments that those countries’ governments make can be convincing, for instance when Russia prohibits access to gambling sites, alcohol sales sites and some pornography sites. Insult to Mohammed or the Koran is a serious offense in most Muslim countries and isn’t it their right to enforce laws prohibiting such insults (even some European countries also have similar prohibitions against insulting Christianity or other religions)? It seems to me that pushing our freedom of speech laws onto other countries is both myopic about cultural differences and is not something that commercial internet companies should be expected to do or be criticized if they agree to restrictions that would not apply in the U.S.

Turning over information to another country about those who violate its laws by posting or searching for banned or suspicious content, which China and Vietnam have asked companies to do, is quite another matter. Doing so makes the commercial company that does it complicit in that country’s restriction of freedom and violates what would be allowed in the United States. This is more than foisting our values onto another country; it is becoming a tool of that country’s oppression of its people. It is qualitatively different than not carrying content or allowing searches that violate a country’s laws.

I would welcome further discussion about this topic, which is not clear-cut in terms of the ethics of the situation.


Reader Comments (1)

The US and US companies should always promote the tenets of the first amendment. To deny free speech is to deny the ability to critically think. Offense-taking is everywhere and that which may offend is an arbitrary and ultimately indefinable set of biased opinions. That’s why free speech is the core principle of human rights. Hate speech is both real and imagined because what is hateful to one may be non-existent to the next. Free speech absolutism, aside from direct calls for violence, is the only way to ensure that the problems that face individuals or humanity in general can be solved. I’m for every form of praise or blaspheme that can be uttered toward me, my family and every person or any group in the world. This attitude allows the freest exchange of ideas while also potentially admitting the most divisive rhetoric possible. You can’t have one without the other. Once you begin to censor for “hate” you begin to lose the ability to freely think and express your thoughts. So, not only should our companies refuse to limit speech in other countries, they should stop banning speech in the US as well. The limiting of speech will always end in a decrease in human rights and an increase in governmental or corporate fascism. As for cultural or moral relativism, just because a culture has a long history of cannibalism doesn’t mean that we need to sign-up to be on the menu. Some cultures are morally superior to others, typically by promoting the most well-being, positive responsibility and individual civil liberty for its members while inferior cultures tend to derive misery, oppressiveness and poverty for its people.

January 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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