Should We Let the Hate Free? The Case of Google, Cyber Censorship, and Turkey

No Hate Speech Movement of the Council of Europe: Facebook and Twitter

Freedom of Expression vs. Freedom from Harm

One of the greatest controversies of our contemporary world is the one between the ideas of freedom of expression and freedom from harm. On the one side of the spectrum, the idealists of freedom of expression are proud of their irreconcilable attitude toward any attempt of putting any restriction on freedom of expression. The ideal of freedom of expression, therefore, aims for the absence of any restriction of any kind notwithstanding its context or content. This is the position of the Dutch press, for instance, in the controversy over the publication of the caricatures on prophet Mohammed. This is an extreme position through which one plays the role of the irreconcilable defender of freedom. Now, the easiest way of defying this position through the dichotomy of theory and practice is simply cheating. Arguing, “the unrestricted enjoyment of freedom of expression is not applicable to our realities” is equivalent to saying, “you are theoretically right, but our original practices do not present any luxury to enjoy freedom fully.” Henceforth, the ideal thesis of the freedom of expression remains untouched while its status of effectiveness is damaged as inapplicable to social reality. At this point, the theory is simultaneously made capable of responding to the damage it takes by turning itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy, a revolutionary or reformist program calling for a change of the present realities. Now, instead of taking the shortcut by emphasizing particularities, let’s face the ideal of freedom of expression in theory, in generalities, where it feels itself strongest.

John Stuart Mill, the author of one of the greatest pieces on freedom – “On Liberty” – equates the evil of silencing the expression of opinion with that of robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generations.[1] Mill’s argumentation is simply as follows: The silenced opinion, first of all, may be right whose oppression shows that the received opinion is totalitarian as it assumes infallibility. If the silenced opinion is an error, it may still contain a portion of truth. Even if the received opinion were wholly truth, without its adversary, it would be defended like a prejudice without rational grounds. In the absence of any collision of adverse opinions, therefore, even the original meaning of the received opinion will be in danger of loss. The final argument is especially striking with reference to the truths, which lost their original meaning that was derived from their collision with their adversaries, after they rendered themselves “infallible”, hence totalitarian. Yet, unlike freedom of conscience, thought, and feeling, freedom of expression naturally operates in a domain where others are concerned. Mill, therefore, introduces the harm principle as the sole legitimate ground to restrict freedom:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. [2]

J. S. Mill

Indeed, without the harm principle, the freedom of expression is not complete; it even turns against itself, into a self-destructing principle. Human is no abstract individual, but a member of a certain society with multiple identities where ideas (beliefs, customs etc.) hold different social status. As certain ideas hold the hegemonic status in every society due to the support of the majority, other ideas of minority status are in constant danger of being silenced, marginalized, or rendered heretic. In fact, unrestricted freedom of expression is detrimental for society from both sides of the coin: The stronger side will use it most efficiently to degrade, instead of falsify, any idea different from their own. After all, for the sacred aim of maintaining its hegemonic status, degradation will be found easier and more efficient than falsification. As thought leads to action, the majority will, quite likely, use its unrestricted freedom of expression to point those dissenting ideas as targets. Every dissenting idea will, therefore, become the normal targets for the hegemonic one to reproduce itself through hate. When the ideas of minority status, on the other hand, are expressed unrestrictedly, they may aim to harm at least the dignity of other ideas, whether of mainstream or minority status. Their revenge for their own humiliation will be the humiliation of others. The result is a destructive tension in which the holders of ideas aim to degrade, humiliate, or harm their others.

On the other extreme of the spectrum, the ideal is to restrict freedom of expression to avoid harm. For this case, harm needs to be defined in concrete terms, as the classic phrase “harm to the public good” is well known of being too ambiguous and too inclined to be abused by power-holders to restrict freedom of expression. Those following Aristotle’s middle as the primary principle, i.e. “the law is the mean”; try to find the delicate balance between freedom of expression and freedom from harm that is required to be sensitive to individual contexts. Now, let’s take the case of Google, the principal search engine, to test whether such a balance is sought in the online space.

The Case of Google

The invention of Internet has drastically changed the world; as it makes the globe smaller, Internet brings us closer. Yet, a few people points out a recent shift from standardization to personalization in the flowing of information in the online space. As the principal representation of this shift, Google is no longer a standard, but a personalized search engine. In other words, according to the initial preferences (and location, computer, browser etc.) of the user, Google finds different results for the searches of two persons looking for the same word. As Edi Pariser describes this personalized flow of information, “the Internet shows us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.[3]

The personalized search engines, therefore, are detrimental for the future of Internet, as they provide only the results that they find “relevant” for the user and omitting the others as “irrelevant”. Relevance is not, however, the only criterion for the filtering of information by the search engines, there is also censorship.

Cyber Censorship and Turkey

“Reporter without Borders” announced the enemy countries of Internet in 2012: Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.[4] The OpenNet Initiative confirms the member countries of the blacklist that put pervasive censorship on Internet through which a large portion of content in several categories are blocked.[5] All of these countries should be examined individually. For instance, the government in Bahrain demonstrated that it deserved its place in the list by harassing human rights activists, arresting bloggers, and keeping the international media away during the protests.

Cyber Censorship World Map (Reporters without Borders)

Turkey, along with France and Australia, joined to the list “Countries under Surveillance” this year. According to the “Engelli Web” (“Handicapped Web”), 20.297 sites were suspended so far in Turkey. As the OpenNet Initiative notes, Turkey follows a selective censorship: Although most of these are betting, pornographic, and pedophile content websites, the ban on certain political websites demonstrate that the Atatürk image and the Kurdish issue have remained the taboos of Turkey. In April 2011, the Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK) provided a list of 136 keywords to be banned from Turkish domain names as part of the fight against pornography.[6] This list of banned keywords – by including words like “skirt” (“etek”), “sister-in-law” (“baldız”), “animal” (“hayvan”), “free” (“bedava”), “pic” (“resim”) – was nothing but ridiculous. BTK initiated the new centralized filtering system “for the safe use of Internet” on November 22, 2011 led to yet another controversy. Sites that are previously blocked by court order will be automatically filtered for the users who have adopted the system.[7] There are also several people who are recently fined or arrested for their online initiatives. For instance, a writer for the Ekşi Sözlük (the Sour Dictionary) website was charged with “contempt for religious values” for writing an article titled “Stupidity of Religion” on August 10, 2010.[8] Against this increasing trend of cyber censorship in Turkey, online mobilizations have been developing such as “Hands off my Internet” and “Because of You.”

When Do We Have the Luxury to Let Hate Free?

Regarding Turkey, it is obvious that freedom of expression both in online as well as offline space is highly restricted. A top down approach determines the restrictions according to the taboos of the ruling military and civil bureaucratic elite. The worse point of this rising trend of censorship is that while freedom of expression and of thought is violated through bans, fines, and arrests, freedom from harm, the only legitimate restriction on freedom of expression, is rarely observed. The appearance and manifestation of hate in the online or offline public space should be “tolerated” only if the public has the luxury to fight against or not to care about it. Yet, if there is an imminent danger[9] for or if hate speech incites violence toward a specific community – which is most probably a historically vulnerable community within the context of the individual country – we have every right to display its destructive content and remove it, if necessary, from the public space.

A banner, saying “All of you are Armenians, all of you are faggots”, from a protest against “the Khojaly Massacre” that had turned into a hate crime against Armenians and all those who support the assassinated Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

There are also new initiatives that fight for the balance between freedom of expression and freedom from harm in the online space. The most recent one is the “Speak No Hate” initiative, organized by the Youth Center of the Council of Europe, which assembled 30 bloggers (including me) from 24 different countries. After a one-week training course on human rights and hate speech in Budapest, bloggers have returned to their home countries to assist the campaign to expand both in national and international contexts. All participants and trainers agree that we do not need new Big Brothers to scrutinize our online presence. The fight against hate speech, therefore, should be sought by raising awareness against the destructive results of hate and the measures of banning and removal should be used only when there is an imminent danger. Hereby, I call for the solidarity of bloggers to support and join the cause:

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 87.

[2] Ibid, p. 80.

[3] For the full speech of Pariser, see: Edi Pariser, “Beware Online Filter Bubbles”, TED, (18.08.12)

[4] See: “Enemies of the Internet: Report 2012”, Reporters without Borders, (18.08.12)

[5] See: “Internet Censorship Data”, OpenNet Initiative, (18.08.12)

[6] “Enemies of the Internet: Report 2012”, p. 68.

[7] Until December 2011, only 22.000 users have adopted the filtering system of BTK. Ibid, p. 68.

[8] For similar examples, see: Ibid, p. 69.

[9] See: Michael Herz and Peter Molnar (eds.), The Content and Context of Hate Speech, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.


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