TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: THE DEFENCE OF FREE SPEECH IN THE INTERNET AGE

Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’, London: Atlantic Books, 2016, ISBN (e-book) 978-1-78239-031-2; also available as hardback and paperback –

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Free-Speech-Principles-Connected-World/dp/1848870922/?ie=UTF8&tag=tgabooks-21

Garton Ash cover

Timothy Garton Ash is a reputed academic (holding the position of Professor of European Studies at Oxford University) and writer and journalist, as well as being a distinguished commentator on George Orwell. The last-named role is particularly befitting for his new book, ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’, which proves to be a publication of vital importance thanks to its epic coverage of an issue now rendered white-hot by globalisation.

This book is long (the print edition runs to 512 pages), and eminently of our time not only in its subject-matter but in its status as part of what the author calls our ‘connected world’. It does not come standalone: the lengthy notes section is replete with links, and the book is also explicitly tied to a website by the name of ‘Free Speech Debate’ (www.freespeechdebate.com), a multinational and multilingual online platform of which Garton Ash himself is the director.

We live in paradoxical times. Internet technology offers individuals and groups, subject only to access to communications facilities and to general and IT literacy, a totally unprecedented freedom to express opinions and disseminate creative works. At the same time, there is massive pressure worldwide, both political and ideological, for limits to be imposed on that same freedom, both online and offline. This pressure may take the form of, for example, systematic state censorship (Russia and China), religiously motivated restrictions (the Islamic world), or, in British and American universities, demands by militant students for ‘safe spaces’, ‘no-platforming’ and general protection from the expression of opinions other than their own.

The whole issue is a minefield, and Garton Ash does his best to navigate it, between affirming necessary general principles and examining particular cases in the requisite detail. He does so from a point of view which is avowedly liberal but does not seek to unilaterally impose a purely ‘Western’ concept of free speech (many of the cases he cites are not from the West at all). As he puts it, ‘This book lays out an argument for, and invites a conversation about, free speech in our new cosmopolis’. He is convinced that the answer to the problems he raises is ‘more and better free speech’, and advocates an attitude of ‘robust civility’ as the way forward. The ‘ten principles’ of the subtitle relate to: lifeblood (free speech as constitutive of humanity), [the rejection of] violence, knowledge, [the responsible practice of] journalism, diversity, [freedom of] religion [but also from religious censorship], privacy, [opposition to] [state] secrecy, ‘icebergs’ [a metaphor for issues of internet governance], and courage. This may seem a rather complex list, but it is still in evolution and subject to change on the website, and, as Garton Ash shows in riveting detail, the issues themselves are nothing if not complex.

On the level of detail, the book is notable both for what it does and does not home in on. Some may be surprised that Garton Ash refrains from detailed commentary on ins and outs of either the ‘Rushdie affair’ or the Charlie Hebdo killings – one could argue, justifiably since many others have already gone over those issues, central as they are, with the finest of combs. Meanwhile, though, the author sheds particularly useful light on other subjects as varied as the controversy over the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ videoclip, the nuts and bolts of China’s day-to-day controls over internet use and its army of censors, and the distinctively American but globally influential First Amendment tradition. On the latter point, the 45 words of the actual amendment text are at no point quoted as such, and here, one might argue, an opportunity has been missed to push home the oft-ignored point that the First Amendment covers not only freedom of speech but other liberties including freedom of religion, and that the chances of it ever being repealed are therefore slim in the extreme. As the book unfolds, the reader encounters a mass of data, both challenging and fascinating: we learn, for instance, that in 2011 a 75-year-old woman scavenging for firewood in a village in Georgia accidentally damaged a cable and brought down the entire internet in most of neighbouring Armenia for twelve hours, yet the woman herself had never heard of the internet – an episode emblematic of that very coexistence in today’s world of the ancient and the hypermodern that underlies many of the problems that Garton Ash raises.

I would be pleased if I felt I could predict that this book will become a modern classic, the latter-day equivalent of a founding text such as John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’. However, that is unlikely to happen, since large swathes of its subject-matter are – by definition, and in the internet age inevitably – ephemeral and time-bound. A second edition would have to be substantially rewritten and would have to take account of technologies that do not yet exist. However, the larger project is by its nature ongoing, and when this book has exhausted its useful life the impassioned debate on its issues will still be in course.

Not all will sympathise with the author’s stance, and pro-censorship responses are to be expected as well as expressions of support – although, will hostile reviewers in the West actually go so far as to walk their talk and have their review censored by a suitable theocrat or relativist before they upload it? I would meanwhile suggest that Garton Ash’s opus should be considered required reading for anyone interested in free speech, but would also advise reading it sooner rather than later, before we are engulfed in new controversies whose contours we have yet to discern.

 

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