International Freedom of the Word, or Words Without Borders

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When Facebook in Poland blocked the accounts of bike enthusiasts, members of the group “United Cyclists”, it only seemed to be an absurd joke.. According to the portal, the administrators running the fan page of cyclists notoriously violated the “Facebook community rules”. Very frequently, they would use the word ‘pedał’ which in Polish is the name of a bicycle or car part – like the gas pedal, but it is also a not very nice or elegant way to call a homosexual man, but not as offensive as the English word ‘faggot’.

Bike lovers, with “understanding”, acknowledged Facebook’s decision and promised to behave better. From that moment on, all of their websites, they decided to call this bicycle part ‘Canadian’. They also refused to use the word ‘black’ and replaced it with the word ‘pink’. Since then, when someone wants to buy a ‘black pedal’, they order a ‘pink Canadian’.

We are, however, progressing from the absurd and grotesque to the horror stage. The Polish government, following the example of its Western European counterparts, is increasingly eager to work on enslaving the uncontrolled Internet, that is, in a nutshell, it wants to introduce censorship, which we only got rid of mere 29 years ago. Their ally is of course the owner of many social media – Facebook, which introduces algorithms that allow searching for specific words and phrases and having found them, block the author’s/authors’ entries or accounts. Everything, of course, for the sake of not being offended or falling victim to false information.

For the Polish government, the German legal solutions, which have been in force since October 2017 under the charming name Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, seem to be the best example to follow. They provide for a fine of up to EUR 50 million for every website administrator who will not delete entries that can be considered “hate speech” within 24 hours and may cause “anxiety or concern”. The authors themselves can land in prison for up to 3 years. For many years, similar solutions have been in force in the UK, under the names: Communications Act and Malicious Communications Act. They allow the pursuit of persons who with their “statements may cause concern and fear to others”. In 2017, there were over 3,500 such cases.

Therefore, the Polish government has role models to follow. However, the question arises on whose regulations the Germans and the British modelled their own. Perhaps on Polish law. In 1984, in the days when, after the imposition of martial law, a communist military junta ruled in Poland, an article was introduced to the penal code: “Whoever distributes false information that can cause social unrest is punished by imprisonment of up to three years”.

Their essence is exactly the same. The Polish government does not have to look at the Germans and can reach to the old communist traditions. Perhaps these provisions will even become a source of inspiration for other Western democracies. French president Macron has already announced that his government will work on eliminating fake news on the Internet and punishing their authors in an effort to ensure that during the next elections, citizens are not deluded and do not submit, as in communist Poland, to “hostile whispers”.

It turns out that Facebook, by introducing algorithms that search for “(politically) incorrect” words and phrases, has not invented anything new. The technology has progressed, but the concept remained unchanged. In 1977, Tomasz Strzyżewski, an employee of the Central Office for Control of the Press, Publications, and Public Performances, or censorship for short, escaped to the West. The fugitive managed to smuggle the documents of the office with him, and so in London, the “Black Book of Censors of the Polish People’s Republic” was published, in detail describing the mechanisms and methods of fighting against the freedom of speech.

As it turns out, the methods introduced by Facebook were already used back in the day. The censors would look for words and phrases and if they showed up, they would block the publication that contained them. These were the so-called censorship “records”. And on that list of forbidden words, there were, among others, such words and phrases as “dissident”, “strike”, “independent trade unions” and later also “Solidarity” (even with a small letter – to describe an attitude), “political prisoner”, “censorship” (sic!), “residents’ protest” etc. These records also applied to individual persons – it was not allowed to publish anything they wrote, and in extreme cases, their names could not be made public either.

Already now in Poland, posts containing “incorrect” words such as ‘pedał’, but also their authors disappear from social media. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about an account being blocked of an author, organisation, association etc. In the world of political correctness, mainly right-wing, conservative, and patriotic content is censored, of course. Recently, one of the victims of such practices fell, among others, the well-known Polish economic activist and WEI collaborator, professor Robert Gwiazdowski whose Twitter account was permanently blocked. The professor dared to criticise Marx and, moreover, showed a picture of the banners under which Labour Day was celebrated on May 1st in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. All it took was an anonymous denunciation and the professor was blocked.

Polish public opinion may still be able to persuade the government not to introduce regulations that the communists would not be ashamed of. Everyone who is over 50 years old, spent actually half their life in a world where there were only fake news, that is communist propaganda. Poles are allergic to it, but also immune, so they will not give up easily one of their biggest achievements after 1989, which is freedom of speech.

It might be worse with online giants such as Google, Twitter or Facebook. The Association of Polish Journalists SPD is organising a public debate on censorship of the Polish Internet. The Google representative responded to the invitation, but the one from Facebook completely ignored it. One perhaps can deal with the government’s ideas, but how does one cope with, for example, the urges of Facebook’s censors? It turns out that the standards of communication and debating in Poland are determined by Facebook – a company from Menlo Park near San Francisco. And they do it with full blessing of the European Union and the governments of Western Europe.

Defamation, slanders, criminal threatening, soliciting crimes are punishable acts described in detail in the penal code. There are also provisions on propagating totalitarian regimes, persecution for race, religion etc. It is not true, therefore, that those committing such acts cannot be prosecuted and censorship must be introduced in social media. Penal codes are introduced by the legislator elected in democratic elections. In an indirect way, these laws are therefore under the control of citizens. However, no-one controls Twitter employees who, according to criteria only known to them, decide what may be written and what must not.

The problem of suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of belief obviously concerns not only Poland, and Poland itself, even in its own backyard, cannot cope with it alone. In Poland, the social networking site Skwir(which means chirp in Polish) is being created, which is supposed to be the equivalent of the American Twitter. It is to be a communication platform where there will be no censorship. Even if Skwir is successful, it will only have a local dimension and still will not solve communication problems on a global scale.

There is a need for cooperation between many organisations at the international level, an International Freedom of the Word of sorts, to fight for the freedom of belief and the possibility of free expression. In the European Union, we do have the freedoms to move: people, goods, and capital. However, there begins to be a deficiency in the freedom of flow of thought. Just as on a global scale, we have today organisations that are fighting for the release of political prisoners, environmental protection, protection of human rights etc., we nowadays also on a global scale must fight for freedom of speech. Only some International Freedom of the Word or Words Without Borders will effectively oppose governments, the European Union or the giants from Silicon Valley and put pressure on them to maintain one of the most basic human rights – the freedom of speech.

Author: Dariusz Matuszak

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