Skip links

Is Freedom of Speech Protected on the Internet?

Many might assume that their freedom of speech is protected online. The internet is a global structure connecting us all, and to many it might seem like a public space, but the social platforms we use to communicate with each other, are privately owned, and the opinions we express there, are not protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Right or by the First Amendment in the American Constitution. As it turns out, our freedom of speech is only protected in public spaces, and the internet, and the social platforms we use, are not in a legal sense perceived as a public forum. This was – in a nutshell – the talk by lawyer Dan Shefet at the European Data Ethics Forum in September.

Even though social platforms in general are not seen as public spaces, the case might be a little different when it comes to public officials. In July 2017, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, filed a lawsuit against president Trump, for blocking seven twitter users from his official twitter account @realDonaldTrump, for disagreeing with his policies and criticising him. The seven twitter users were excluded from the public debate on the president’s twitter account and held from reading his political statements.

The argument from the Knight First Amendment Institute was, that the president’s twitter account, even though he has had it before running for office, should be perceived as a public forum, based on the way he uses it as a communication channel for the White House, e.g. to make political announcements of new policies and nominees to key government positions.

This year last May, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, ruled that is was in violation with the First Amendment for the president to block the seven twitter users from his twitter account. Not only did he limit these users from seeing his statements and commenting on them, but he also depriving other users from the debates that might have arisen from these twitter users’ comments.

The ruling makes is easier to protect other citizens from being excluded from the debates that take place on accounts of public officials, but even though there has been a ruling in the case with Donald Trumps’ twitter account, it does not mean that our human rights, in specific our freedom of speech, in general is protected on social platforms, according to Dan Shefet.

The big social platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, are privately owned companies, and they themselves are protected by the law. This means in most circumstances that they get to censure their platforms the way they want and decide who get to use it. The user’s opinions are thereby not legally protected by the Universal Human Rights Declaration or the First Amendment, said Dan Shefet who then asked the audience to question our social media behaviour:

We must ask ourselves, who we think should have the power to censure statements and opinions being expressed on social platforms connecting billions of people across the world? Is it appropriate for private firms, to be the ones to decide whose voices is to be heard or silenced? Do we want them to have that power?

See videos and more from the conference

Signe Agerskov is researching blockchain ethics at the European Blockchain Center.