'21st Century Book Burning'

Posted by Douglas Frantz
March 21, 2014
iPhones in Flames

If you’re reading this, you probably live in a country where the Internet provides a portal for the free exchange of ideas. But in many countries, believe it or not, what so many of us take for granted is unfathomable.  In others, it is a smoldering memory. 

Every day, governments around the world devote precious resources to Internet censorship.  It is 21st Century book burning -- and it doesn’t make anyone stronger. This brand of suppression affects all of us: In an era in which the Internet serves as the world’s community forum, censorship anywhere is a threat to freedom of speech everywhere.

Sometimes even our friends make this mistake. A friend like Turkey has nothing to fear in the free-flow of ideas and even criticism represented by Twitter. Its attempt to block its citizens’ access to social media tools should be reversed.
 

The United States’ history on freedom of expression has not always lived up to our highest values -- we have slipped at times -- but always we have tried to live up to this fundamental conviction at the heart of our nation’s founding principles. We’re strongest when we do -- strongest when we act in accordance with our belief in the free market of ideas, trusting that our values are strong enough to withstand opposition. We have found that the most powerful weapon against hateful, libelous or untrue speech is more speech.

True, there are times when certain types of speech -- criticism of policies, or worse, stories revealing scandals -- seem at first to undermine our government. Some officials may be tempted to view the press or open-discussion forums as the enemy. The way we respond to criticism is what separates vibrant democracies from authoritarian regimes. Indeed, the fact that our 68th Secretary of State was once a full-time dissenter is proof positive that dissent makes us stronger not weaker.

Democracies know that public criticism holds governments accountable. There have been countless instances in U.S. history in which individuals or media outlets have uncovered abuses or disclosed policy mistakes. While painful, these episodes demonstrate that public criticism provides essential feedback for representative governments. Encouraging open debates communicates an eagerness to improve and to grow as a country. Shutting down opposing views is not a demonstration of strength.

Ultimately, the battle against the openness and connectivity embodied by the Internet is a losing one. Walls are built then scaled, raised then circumvented. Twitter is blocked and tweets still fly. YouTube is shut down and videos are still streamed.

Government leaders must accept that they do not have the power to prevent conversations from taking place. They only have the choice of whether to participate in them. And you can be sure that if people are banned from social media they will find other ways to voice their opinions.

The determination to communicate is universal, and the right to free speech should be universal, too. Governments that try to silence their own people are fighting a losing battle -- and one that is a recipe for greater social unrest. 

About the Author: Doug Frantz serves as the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at the Department.  He was previously a journalist for more than 35 years, reporting from 40 countries.  He served as the New York Times Istanbul bureau chief and investigations editor, Washington Post national security editor, and Los Angeles Times managing editor.

For more information, see Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index 2014.

Comments

Comments

Daniel C.
|
Turkey
March 22, 2014

It seems there has been an acceleration in this kind of activity over the last three years I have lived in Turkey. It has been very interesting to watch up close.  Censorship has affected a good many bystanders, including the many talented Turkish students we work with to find the right graduate degree for their career goals.  They need access to Twitter, YouTube, and even Facebook to do appropriate due diligence about their academic, and professional futures.  It is important to remember that the good, valid needs for these communication tools is critical to many generations and people in different levels of their academic and professional lives.

Abdurrahman H.
|
United Kingdom
March 22, 2014
I do not support any ban on the internet since there is always a way to reach websites banned. It is unfair, however, to criticise Turkey for banning Twitter without giving the underlying reason why Turkey did so. In Turkey, like other countries, social media including twitter has been often used not only for socialising but also for social or political causes. There is of course no problem in here, but when some accounts breach the law by spreading defamatory statements or prohibited content, the courts have a right to request for account information or content removal (https://transparency.twitter.com). Interestingly Twitter have complied with most of the requests coming from for example the UK, or USA courts (and even from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia) but not from Turkish courts. Do you think that is it fair? So why not mentioning this reason which has been articulated many times by the related government agencies. I am afraid that this way of looking events in other countries makes the USA one of the most hated nations in the world. When it comes to you, Twitter must comply with your courts, but when it comes to other countries, it becomes NOT important. Please be fair!
Matt C.
|
California, USA
March 24, 2014
Abdurrahman H - can you cite examples of the court cases from the US and from Turkey? It's an interesting argument, but without citations to actual examples, specious.
Bill P.
|
United States
March 24, 2014
The U.S. has also closed publications which criticized government policy. One example would be the suppression of Fusion magazine in 1987. Of course, the U.S. does not censor the internet -- it simply spies on every keystroke.
Yurda B.
|
California, USA
March 24, 2014
Whose courts are you talking about? Erdogan's?...You either completely oblivious to what has happened recently or blinded by your support of erdogan… purging of judges and prosecutors and replacing them with his supporters doesn’t give the judicial system independence…shutting down twitter doesn’t guarantee him to stay in power or evade being prosecuted for corruption and abuse of power at the end…all it does is delay things all the while making people more determined!
Yurda B.
|
California, USA
March 24, 2014
Bill - this has nothing to do with criticizing government policy… twitter is blocked to stop the citizens of Turkey from discussing corruption the government of Erdogan is accused of! And it is his hand-picked judges who signed the court order to block twitter… it you want to argue about innocent until proven guilty, the government recently blocked the opposing party’s corruption investigation bill in the congress!
BEN C.
|
United States
April 5, 2014
A.H. > I quote from you: "...but when some accounts breach the law by spreading defamatory statements or prohibited content, the courts have a right to request for account information or content removal." I understand that to mean individual accounts, not all, and such should be the implementation. Kind of like If there is a rotting apple in a basket, it should be found and thrown out, the remaining good apples should be left alone......Peace......
BEN C.
|
United States
April 5, 2014
Well said, good health to your mouth!
BEN C.
|
United States
April 5, 2014
Correct, just like Yurda B. wrote. Such activity has been going on since the AK party has gained control of Turkish Parliament. Like a virus, they have spread and incorporated their ideology throughout our Motherland. The social media blocks is part of a greater suppression of the citizens......

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