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What a tangled web we weave – Freedom of expression on the Internet

Rea Cris is the Parliamentary Office Administrator at Scottish Environmental LINK and Communication Co-ordinator at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. You can find her on the Me Eco You Eco corner of the blogosphere or on Twitter @MeecoYoueco

Recently, I attended the International Young Scotland Programme,  organised by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland and designed to recognise the increasing contribution people born overseas but now living and working in Scotland make to the country’s diverse and multi-cultural society.

The conference was an inspirational exchange of ideas and delegates came from nearby European states to as far as China and Nepal. 

One exciting element was the Group Challenge – we were given different topics to discuss what sort of world we want to see in 25 years. As you might guess, I was grouped into Human Rights and, to be honest, we struggled.

Where to start, what to focus on? We batted ideas back and forth – equal marriage, the rights of Afghan women and sex trafficking… but the one element which kept creeping up was the digital age we live in and what rights are associated with it.

We often jokingly lament our slow internet access or how we are unable to do any work if there is a power cut but in reality we have constructed our lives in a digital world, much of which is hidden from view. Think about the increasing and encroaching use of CCTV cameras, current moral dilemmas as to whether it is right to film someone at work and, if so, what rights do governments or companies have to use these images and videos?

Our presentation focused on the right of individuals to have a personal digital presence and the right to put this information into context should it ever be misused or misrepresented. The time limit didn’t allow us to delve deeper into the balance between rights and responsibility.  Are we, as individuals responsible for all the information we supply or is there a sort of unspoken moral code of conduct and who draws the line between rights and rights abused? If individuals can’t discern these lines, then what stops governments or companies abusing this information for their own purposes?

Perhaps instead of excusing our behavior by asking who reads the terms and conditions anyway, should we not instead be demanding they are simpler, easier to use or even the simple right to say ‘no, this cannot be used’?

Do we even have a right to share information in the first place? Used effectively, the internet is a wonderful tool which continues to raise awareness of injustices in countries where the media is under government controlled or restriction.

It allows us to create global empathy around causes and can even help get aid to those in need. However, used badly it can generate ignorance, hatred, and fear, and leads to increasingly more people taking things at face value rather than questioning or checking facts.

‘But what about freedom of speech?’ I hear you cry. I would never suggest freedom of speech should be revoked or restricted but what happened to personal responsibility and thinking for yourself?  Are we in fact abusing our own rights by our compliancy and apathy?

There seems to be a malaise in our society, with an increasing lack of individual opinion or rather fear of opinions lest someone is offended which turns into an abdication of responsibility and an over-simplification of democracy. Freedom of speech is all about being allowed to influence others and in turn be influenced.

I found an internet thread asking “If an alien came to earth, how would you describe the internet to them” and some clever person replied “I would tell them that in my hand I hold all humankind knowledge but I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers”.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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