Freedom of Speech and the Internet

December 11, 2010 at 12:30 pm (Miscellaneous) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Freedom of Speech and the Internet


According to Boing Boing and Wikiquote, it was John Gilmore who once said that: “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

The attempts to censor material posted online have been many and varied. There have been mere threats of legal action (usually claims of either copyright infringement or libel, in the cases that I can recall), but also lawyers’ letters and legal representatives contacting webhosts. Often, the material that is proving so inconvenient as to necessitate  legal threats will reappear elsewhere on the internet.

Legal Chill

My only real direct experience with legal chill came in relation to parts of a forum discussion that I had reposted and criticised on my blog. I was accused of defamation and of copyright infringement. I felt that republishing snippets of the debate I was criticising was “fair use”, but was told to “remove the parts of [my] post quoted from those made on the forum immediately”, or they would “be seeking legal representation to have this enforced.” I didn’t take the threat too seriously, and nothing ever came of it.

Another copyright infringement was alleged when Ben Goldacre posted a clip of Jeni Barnett discussing the MMR vaccine on LBC Radio. The clip was removed by Dr Goldacre, but segments of it later appeared on a number of websites. A full transcript was also made and put online.

The clip also turned up on Wikileaks. Wikileaks hosts much material that people would prefer to disappear and was once described by the Guardian as “an uncensorable and untraceable depository for the truth.” Apparently, they’re having a spot of bother at the moment.

The Quackometer blog has been subject to complaints to its webhost on more than one occasion. The Society of Homeopaths sent the Quackometer’s hosting company Netcetera a complaint via their legal representatives, and the offending page was taken down. Then mirrored by lots of other sites.

The Quackometer again ran into trouble with legal threats when a Doctor working in the field of Alternative Medicine sent a lawyer’s letter to the hosting company and the entire Quackometer blog was taken down, which led to a move to another hosting company.

The Streisand Effect

Described by Wikipedia as “a primarily online phenomenon in which an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of causing the information to be publicized widely and to a greater extent than would have occurred if no censorship had been attempted.”

The Streisand Effect saw LBC’s audio clip uploaded to a number of websites after they contacted Ben Goldacre to ask that it be removed from his website. The Quackometer blog posts that led to threats of legal action being taken against the webhosts were republished by a host of bloggers. Even a libel case involving a newspaper article written by Simon Singh led to widespread publication of an amended version of the offending article online.

Legal action, or the threat of legal action can (particularly where it is perceived to be an unfair use of the law) motivate bloggers, Twitterers, and others to shine a light on those trying to silence debate or criticism. The number of examples of counter-productive legal chill seem to be increasing. Suing, or threatening to sue, can so easily backfire when there are so many resources on the internet – and so many resourceful users.

Criticism or Censorship?

In January 2010, Catherine Bennett wrote about the criticism levelled at Rod Liddle for remarks he had allegedly made online. Of the thousands who criticised Liddle’s remarks on Twitter, or joined Facebook groups critical of Liddle, Bennett wrote that they “evidently believe that extreme obnoxiousness is adequate pretext for censorship.”

Criticism is not the same thing as censorship. There have been occasions where serious attempts to silence criticism have been made – as I detail above in my remarks on legal chill. Mass criticism of the kind faced by Jan Moir (over the infamous Stephen Gately column) or by Liddle over his alleged online remarks does not censor. Court injunctions and the threat of libel do.

Those who hold views we find unpalatable are free to voice them (as long as they do not transgress the laws of libel or incitement to hatred). Equally, we are free to voice our criticism as long as it is within the bounds of the law. If the author of unpopular views is criticised, they are free to respond to critics and defend their views. At no point is anyone being censored. This is as it should be.


Few people (if any) are invariably forthright. We all have occasion at some point in our lives to aim for a more diplomatic response than the first one that comes to mind (or to bite our tongues and say nothing at all), and for various reasons.

We may wish to avoid causing harm to others, for example. Or we may consider that expressing our views robustly will backfire and will mean that we fail to persuade others of the value of the point we make. We may also self-censor in order to avoid criticism or for fear of the legal consequences.

If someone chooses to self-censor for reasons such as the former, then it is at least a free choice – whether to speak their mind and to stand by their opinions or whether to hold back is up to them.

Choosing to self-censor in order to avoid a libel case in a country with laws as illiberal as England’s is a slightly different matter. This is not a truly free choice – it is a choice determined in part by the potential costs of such a case. Even in successfully defending a libel case, it is possible to lose considerable sums of money. This can be a serious deterrent to exercising one’s freedom of speech.


That freedom of speech is to some extent restricted by legislation – for example laws against incitement to racial hatred – is, on the whole, beneficial to society in my opinion. That legislation is used as a tool to silence truthful criticism or legitimate debate is not. The best defence against the misuse of such legal measures may well be solidarity.

Anyone who has followed the attempts at legal chill will have noted that on a number of occasions this tactic has backfired. Often because a number of individuals have nullified the threat by reproducing the material and leaving the threatened legal action “overtaken by events.” Long may this resistance to abuse of legislation continue.


My reply to the person who complained of copyright infringement, Bad Science and LBC, The Quackometer on web hosts good and bad, Catherine Bennett on Liddle, my thoughts on Bennett’s article, the Streisand Effect.


  1. Tweets that mention Freedom of Speech and the Internet « Stuff And Nonsense -- said,

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James, James, Prateek Buch, Alan Henness, Ceehaitch and others. Ceehaitch said: RT @jdc325: New Blogpost: Freedom of Speech and the Internet […]

  2. Martin said,

    “Or we may consider that expressing our views robustly will backfire and will mean that we fail to persuade others of the value of the point we make.”

    What? I don’t understand.


    Anyhoo, while the morals of the existing interweb anti-establishment technocrats align with yours (and somewhat mine) then obviously we see the ability of internet users to sidestep state censorship as a Good Thing to society.

    But then, if it is also a tool to spread hate, to publish dubious details (those accused – but not convicted – of rape or peadophilia for example, or on membership lists) or to expose people to harm from vicious bandits (such as wikileaks) then a mechanism to resist libel law can also be used to resist other laws.

  3. jdc325 said,

    @Martin – yes, whether or not you think, say, the Streisand Effect is “a good thing” may depend in part on how it’s used. If you accept it has its place, then you have to rely on people not being tools. Sadly, this is something I doubt we will ever be able to rely upon.

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