In modern democratic societies, there exist certain fundamental rights of an individual with regards to freedom of expression. Balancing this fundamental right against countervailing private and public interests such as personal privacy and social order is a monumental task.

Not only do we have to consistently adapt to rapidly changing technology, we also have to take into consideration the social and cultural context of a particular society. Striking a balance between freedom to speak and freedom from fear has perplexed democratic theorists for hundreds of years.

Is Free Speech Ever Free?

Freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution of most, if not all, democratic societies. It is a fundamental liberty of every citizen to have the right to freedom of speech and expression. This right, however, is not and has never been absolute.

A 2017 Pew Research Center Survey revealed that roughly 4 in 10 Americans have personally experienced online harassment, with 62% considering it a major problem. Many want technology firms to do more, but they are divided on how to balance free speech and safety issues online. For those who experience online harassment directly, these encounters can have profound real-world consequences, ranging from mental or emotional stress to reputational damage or even fear for one’s personal safety.

The right to freedom of speech and expression is closely related to other rights, and may be limited when conflicting with other rights. Common limitations to freedom of speech relate to: defamation, copyright violation, non-disclosure agreements and public security among others.

Changes in Human Behaviour

Since the invention and introduction of the internet to the masses, changes to human behaviour and attitudes have been sweeping across the world. The spontaneous and unregulated way the internet developed led many of its users to idealise its uniquely free, decentralised and democratic character. This idealism would soon turn to cynicism.

Businesses in the tech industry are largely driven by data-sharing, which necessitate the empowerment of the individual through user-generated content. While these tech giants do empower the user, the power to empower the user is concentrated within a few colossal companies. This has led to intentional and unintentional data integrity concerns.

While these 21st century tools have given power and control to the masses, it has also created a handful of powerful tech companies; providing a unique challenge to both legislators and users regarding its use and abuse.

Even though the concept of freedom of speech seems quite simple at face value; in reality, there are complex limitations that are drawn around what kinds of speech are protected and in what setting.

Ask Yourself

When citizens, corporations and lawmakers try to balance freedom of expression with the goal of maintaining a peaceful society, what principles do you think are most important for us to bear in mind?

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