Sunday, July 31, 2016

Book review: Free Speech by Timothy Garton Ash – coping with the internet as ‘history’s largest sewer’

Free Speech by Timothy Garton Ash
reviewed by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

This is a thought-provoking manifesto for a ‘connected world’, a suggested agreement on how we disagree. But is freedom of expression what Garton Ash says it is?

In the 1980s, Timothy Garton Ash made his name as a brilliant reporter on central and eastern European politics. He was spied on by the Stasi (who code named him “Romeo”), made friends with dissident writers, politicians and journalists, and experienced first hand what it was like to live in a world of totalitarianism, censorship, secret police and samizdat publishing.

The year 1989 changed everything. It brought not only the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but also the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in China, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and the invention of the world wide web. How has the dawn of this new age affected freedom of expression across the globe? Five years ago, with a team of students at Oxford University, Garton Ash set out to explore this question. He created freespeechdebate.com, a forum where dozens of contributors from around the world, including such luminaries as Shirin Ebadi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Arundhati Roy, have weighed in on everything from the politics of Pussy Riot to “Why is Mein Kampf the 12th most sold history book on Amazon India?”

His new book draws on, and is meant to further, this international, multilingual discussion. Its electronic version provides readers with an interactive, layered experience, through hyperlinks that connect to the website, and then to an ocean of further online evidence. The printed edition is a hybrid of journalism, manifesto and wonkish musings on the legal and technological impact of the internet.

Garton Ash has clearly had a tremendous time researching it. He travels around the world, from Berlin to Beijing. He interviews Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Berners-Lee and the director-general of the BBC. He hangs out with “Jimbo” Wales and with young people in Cairo and Myanmar. He visits Google’s headquarters in California, where he complains to its head of public policy about the ads that pop up on his screen. Along the way, he learns about the politics of radio soap operas in Rwanda, the Japanese video game RapeLay (mission: “to rape, repeatedly, a mother and her two daughters and force them to have an abortion if they became pregnant”), the fining of a Russian taxi company for an advertisement that was “offensive to bread”, and the law passed in Belarus in 2011 that criminalises people standing around in public silently doing nothing.

The book’s premise is that because of mass migration and the internet, much of the world nowadays lives in a permanently connected “cosmopolis”. For good or ill, freedom of expression flows easily across frontiers. A video anonymously posted online in California can cause death and mayhem across Asia; and even a legal injunction by the UK supreme court cannot stop English readers from accessing overseas information on the identity of the naughty celebrities “PJS”and “YMA”. Our traditional ways of regulating expression don’t work very well any more… read more: