Social Media

Viva la France, viva la speech? #JeSuisCharlie and the limits of speech online

Fi Bendall /

The world changed forever in 1789 with the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaimed that ‘the free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man.’

This sentence has since become the foundation for the freedom of speech, and a crux of modern democracy. Recently, we have been devastated by the attacks in Paris directed towards employees of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Back track a bit, and let’s examine the scenario. Charlie Hebdo is notorious for its satire and does not shy away from offending various groups of people, regardless of cultural background.

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo saw 12 people killed (with eight more killed in separate but related incidents). The attack was ignited by offensive material the magazine had published depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad in a questionable manner. Since the attacks, social media has been rife with support for the victims through #JeSuisCharlie.

The President of France, Francois Hollande, has defended Charlie Hebdo and used the right to freedom of speech to show defiance in the face of an adversary – along with the presence of 70,000 armed forces in Paris.

This is a tragic incident, but it does make you question – how far is too far? Especially when it comes to social media. The idealistic model would be to declare that there is no limitation and offense is a side effect of the ‘innate’ human right, as declared by President Hollande. However, if we turn our gaze toward the USA, we can see a different opinion arise – one that believes in limitation of speech for protection for the purposes of #CyberSecurity.

After a recent hijack of CENTCOM’s Twitter and YouTube channel by alleged supporters of ISIS, President Obama declared that if individuals are “to be connected, then we need to be protected”. This announcement speaks a different truth, in slight opposition to President Hollande: freedom of speech exists but it has limitations.

What can individual and businesses take away from this?

Freedom of speech is a tool for many different purposes; however, it does have its limitations. The online world where we interact with each other, through the various networks and platforms that proliferate, is not some void or virtual vacuum. The information an individual or business disseminates is received and, in more cases than not, fed back in a continuous perpetuating loop. Perhaps that’s a tad too meta, but it’s true.

Domestically, there have been reports that the Victorian Police has put in over 60,000 requests for data retention to ISPs in the past year. The metadata has been aggregated and used for crime prevention, which is the stance the Victorian Police is using for its defence. Defendants of individual rights and freedom of speech would regard this scenario as a blatant misuse of technology and invasion of privacy, but as one can see – there is the other side, it can be used for protection and social betterment.

Either side of the coin, there is the ups and downs, but it comes down to the individual, and when online perhaps protection is a tool kept in mind not in government.

Fi Bendall is the managing director of Bendalls Group, a team of highly trained digital specialists, i-media subject matter experts and developers.

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Fi Bendall

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Bendalls Group and a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence, who was described by CEO Magazine as 'The CEO's Secret Weapon'. An expert and pioneer in digital strategy, she has over 23 years’ experience in the digital and tech sectors.

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