By Vasiliki Theodosiou,
From the ongoing debate in Australia and its current effort to regulate tech platforms, such as Facebook, to the ongoing debate in Greece and its effort to legislate what can be published online, the struggle for controlling the online world is beyond real.
With Facebook responding by banning the feature of news sharing in the platform for all users within the Australian continent, and Greek artists along with people from other fields expressing their concerns over a violation of their freedom of speech, those two random but simultaneous occurring events might be less unrelated than they appear to be.
Despite their differences -be it of geographical or legislative nature- those two events that troubled media outlets and public opinion all over the world this week, showed the challenges of trying to legislate virtual reality.
The concept of the internet itself began, and is still widely associated, with the idea of people being able to freely express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions online, enabling the exchange of knowledge as well as information and the creation of a constant dialogue in which everyone could have a say. Nevertheless, having companies -such as Google and Facebook- in the game, meant that they would obviously require from their users to follow certain guidelines in order to avoid turning such platforms into a space of expressing hatred and racism or verbally harming other users and violating their personal or public life.
For most, this absolutely makes sense. Choosing to make use of the service that a company is providing you, means that you have the obligation to comply with its policies and peacefully co-exist with the rest of the users of this very same service. But what happens when the companies themselves are asked to follow certain guidelines on the basis that they are operating within a country and must therefore comply with its rules and regulations? We are yet to find out, since the Australia vs Facebook controversy has just sparked out.
At the same time though, turning our gaze away from that continent and moving on to another one -that of Europe to be precise- one finds that the European Union itself has made efforts to control the internet and render it a safe space for everyone. While doing so, it creates guidelines which the governments of its member states are then asked to follow, having the ability to make alterations based on their national legislation. An EU Directive and the recent attempt of the Greek government to integrate it into its national legal system, highlighted the obligation of member states to respect human dignity and make sure that services provided online do not include disrespectful content or content that could potentially instigate terrorist actions.
Although it might seem like a fair and clear statement, concerns have been expressed. The line between what can be considered as dangerous and what is not, is very thin. This means that users who upload content of artistic nature or any other nature for all that matters, could face a ban on their content based on the fear that it might be illegal or potentially violating. Defining what can be considered as “violence instigating” is very vague and the legislation introduced by the Greek government made no attempt to specify it, leaving artists, journalists, researchers and educators worried, whilst demanding the exclusion of the arts, the press and research from the directive. Otherwise they could be blamed for easily provoking violence and ultimately, leading to questioning the freedom of speech within the country.
All of these concerns make it clear that legislative acts, which initially appear to be harmless and are based on good will as well as the will to protect the public, should be carefully thought of and then, drafted before entering the legislative process, as our virtual reality is replete with facts that are not easily identified and considered upon. Under no circumstances should this mean that one should quit from trying to legislate the internet altogether. However, they should do so by having as primary focus the protection of fundamental human rights and by balancing them with the protection of individual safety, dignity and integrity.
ABC News, Facebook just restricted access to news in Australia. Here’s what that means for you. Available here.
ΤΟ ΒΗΜΑ, “Τρομονόμος” στην Τέχνη: Αντιδράσεις για ευρωπαική οδηγία λογοκρισίας. Available here.