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The best books on Free Speech

recommended by Timothy Garton Ash

Free speech is the bedrock of a healthy society, but how do we deal with the torrents of horrible comments—and worse—we see on the internet every day? Timothy Garton Ash, author of Free Speech: Ten Principles for A Connected World, outlines a plan for navigating the complexities and recommends the best books to help us think about free speech.


Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, where he is also director of Free Speech Debate, a global research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom. You can click on a country to see what's going on there in terms of free speech here.

In addition, he is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, where he is also director of Free Speech Debate, a global research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom. You can click on a country to see what's going on there in terms of free speech here.

In addition, he is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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In your book, you’ve narrowed it down to ten principles, but free speech is incredibly complicated, isn’t it?

Yes. It’s even more complicated now, because it used to be about the state you were in. There used to be the old rule of thumb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But in the world of mass migration and the internet, there are people from everywhere in Rome, and what someone says in Rome can be heard anywhere. So the forces involved are very complicated.

There are multiple states, there are international organisations, there are what I call the ‘private superpowers’—Google, Facebook, Twitter, which, as we’re all discovering, are effectively regulating our freedom of speech, often globally—and then there are other players.

On the other hand, you can still have quite simple principles—liberal principles for free speech in a world where everybody’s becoming neighbours with everybody else. Earlier this year, I presented my ten principles to IFEX, which is the biggest global network of free speech organizations. There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm because I think a lot of people feel that’s what we need in this incredibly complicated, connected world: a few relatively simple rules of the road.

I tend to think of free speech as one of various freedoms that we enjoy in a democracy, but you make the point that it’s of more central importance than that: free speech is the freedom on which all the other freedoms are based.

It is the oxygen of all other freedoms. The classic example of this is Amartya Sen’s famous study, which shows that there’s never been a major famine in a country which had a free press—because the news gets out and there’s outrage. So there’s this elemental connection even with the right to life, to have enough to eat.

Readers can have a look at all ten of your principles here, but, briefly, what is free speech?

If you look at the ten, you’ll see that beyond the basic principle that we need freedom of speech, the next most important thing I formulate as, “We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.” We all know this because of the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, the fatwas and the death threats. All over the world one of the most important threats to free speech are threats of violence. It’s as important to face down what I call ‘the assassin’s veto’—as in the case of Charlie Hebdo—as it is not yourself to make threats of violence. They’re two sides of the same coin.

Fundamentally, if we could agree on those two—the basic principle that we need effective freedom of speech and the principle of no violence—then we could argue about what are the legitimate limits in relation to privacy or religion or national security, or how we talk about diversity, hate speech, and so on. All the others are areas where we can have an argument, but at least we’ve defined the big areas for debate.

I hadn’t appreciated is to the extent there are big differences between countries, even in the West. On paper, America has by far the freest speech, more so than various European countries, but they also have quite a bit of variation between them.

People in China, or in India, if you talk to them, imagine there is ‘the West’ but actually there are big differences inside the West. In the US, there is the First Amendment tradition, which is undoubtedly the greatest constitutionally anchored tradition of free speech in the world. But the United States has no hate speech laws. Most European countries and Canada have hate speech laws. That’s one big transatlantic difference.

“Through Facebook and Google and Twitter, American norms are being spread worldwide”

The other point is that the internet was made in America. It’s more American than motherhood and apple pie—because a few other countries do have those. Therefore what you’re getting through Facebook and Google and Twitter is American norms being spread worldwide. So, for example, Facebook says, ‘No nudity’—but it’s more relaxed about hate speech. The French are much more relaxed about nudity, but more restrictive of hate speech. So that’s one of the really interesting arguments—are we going to take over these American cultural norms?

Let’s talk a bit more about some of these themes in the context of the books you’ve chosen. The first on your list is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Was he the first to argue for free speech?

Absolutely not. You can find notions of free speech not just in Ancient Greece—where a massive amount of what we think of as free speech and democracy comes from—but, interestingly, in ancient Chinese texts, in ancient Indian texts, in the edicts of the Emperor Ashoka. It’s really important to say that the idea has been around forever, and not just in western culture.

But in the modern western world, you start in the 17th century with the English Revolution, with John Milton, then with the Enlightenment—English, French, Scottish, and American. Then you go, on the one hand, to the First Amendment in the U.S., which is obviously a classic statement of free speech, and in England, to John Stuart Mill.

In my view, Mill is one of those mildly irritating authors like Tocqueville, who say so much so well that it’s difficult to say it better. Actually, when I say On Liberty, I mean above all chapter two of On Liberty, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion” which says so much, so brilliantly, so eloquently…

The free speech that we enjoy today, how does it compare to Mill’s ideas? I mean, is he advocating for freer speech than we actually have now, or are we pretty much in line with what he envisaged?

We where? We in the West, we in Britain? Which country are we talking about?

Most of our readers are in the US or the UK.

That’s a rather good question. The answer is interestingly complicated, because, of course, a question of free speech is also a question about power relations, who is in a position to speak freely? The ideal of free speech is an ideal of equality, where everyone is free to speak freely. Now of course, the world of Victorian Britain didn’t have that. Did the servants have freedom of speech? Did women have freedom of speech? Did colonised people in the British Empire have effective freedom of speech? Certainly not. So in that sense, we have more, because more people have more right to speak freely—and more ability, because so many of us have a smartphone or a computer.

“The mark of a free society is that we restrain ourselves”

On the other hand, I think Mill would be extremely worried by some of the taboos we see today, the sense that we have to tiptoe around all sorts of really difficult subjects. I don’t think he would have been keen at all on hate speech laws, because one of the key things he said—and where I am very much a Millian—is that the mark of a free society is that we restrain ourselves. The state is not the father telling you, like a child, what you can do and what you can’t do, and putting you in the corner. Mature, adult citizens make their own choices, and we choose what I call ‘robust civility.’ That’s exactly what he thinks, but he insists very strongly that it shouldn’t be imposed by law.

In terms of his argument, he says we should be free to say anything, “however immoral it might be considered.”

Yes, and that the criteria should not be mere offence—he’s very good on that. But his central statement is about seeking the truth. What he says is very original, which is that many false statements may contain a grain of truth, and even an utterly false statement challenges us to restate our position. It’s therefore a way to keep the good sword of truth sharp, if you’re constantly confronting it with other arguments. He talks about the ‘deep slumber’ of a decided opinion, of received wisdom. That’s at the heart of what he’s trying to argue—the argument from seeking the truth.

He also has this wonderful passage where he says that we’re so much shaped by the world we’re in that the same causes which make someone a churchman in London would have made him a Buddhist or Confucian in Peking. That’s so profoundly true. We’re so shaped by the environment, that you need that contrary, idiosyncratic opinion to shake it up.

And yet he doesn’t think you should be allowed to harm others with your speech. How is that enforced, then?

This is Mill’s ‘harm principle’—that I should be free to say or do anything, so long as it does not do harm to others. That’s core to modern liberalism, the basic framework. Then the argument becomes, ‘What harms other people?’

So take the torrent of horrible stuff—rubbish, abuse, hate speech—which is flowing through the internet. As I say in the book, the internet is the largest sewer in human history, and the sewerage is all waiting to spill out of your smart phone. The question is, what’s genuinely harmful in that?

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Now, that’s very difficult to work out because, as with so much else with free speech, context is all. If I started ranting to you about Tutsis in Rwanda here, sitting at a table in north Oxford, it would be stupid, but it wouldn’t have harmful effects. In the context of Rwanda in 1994, people got killed as a result.

Nonetheless, it’s immensely clarifying to start with the question about harm, and it’s harm, not mere offence. One of the diseases of our time is that people are saying, ‘You shouldn’t say that!’—just because it’s merely offensive to somebody. It’s what I call the offensiveness veto. You almost get to the point where just one person has to stand up and say, ‘I’m offended’ for a speaker to be disinvited from a university.

But how do you stop harm happening? So really horrible stuff is being said about the Tutsis on Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda. What do you then do? Does the state get involved?

Yes. This is a simple distinction, but I think it’s a really, really important one to bring into the debate. At the moment, we have this cauldron we call ‘hate speech.’ Within that is really, really dangerous stuff, which ends up with people being killed or silenced, as well as just very offensive stuff, or rubbish, or stupidity. What you have to do is take apart the ingredients of this stew and say which parts we need the state to go after. The state should go after what I call ‘dangerous speech’—something that is intended and likely to lead to physical violence or serious psychological harm.

Hate speech as such—hateful speech—I say we have to counter in civil society, by calling people out on it in everyday life. People say something stupid about Muslims, you call them out on it. People make a stupid racist joke, you call them out on it, either online or in real life.

“What we’re all trying to do is to teach our children to navigate the high seas of the internet”

But no. 1, in principle it shouldn’t be the state having to organise all that, because then we’re children back in nursery school. No. 2, because there is so much more speech as a result of the internet—just oceans of it—the state is totally incapable of policing all of that. So the state should focus on the really dangerous stuff.

For dangerous speech, people endlessly quote Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” That’s a pretty silly thing to do, but Mill’s example is much better. He says that it was fine to criticise corn dealers—who were the, I don’t know, investment bankers of his day—but if someone is inciting an angry mob to violence outside the corn merchant’s house, that’s a different matter. It’s a very simple image, but it gets you started on what we mean by dangerous speech as opposed to hate speech.

One sentence jumped out at me from your book: “The devil is in the details.” Before I started reading it, I just didn’t grasp the amount of detail and thought you have to go into, at so many levels, to figure out what a good framework is.

Absolutely. But, at the same time, that’s why you’ve got ten simple principles. The metaphor that runs through my book is a metaphor of navigation. Michel Foucault quotes an ancient Greek philosopher, saying that we should teach free speech like navigation. It’s a wonderful image. What we’re all trying to do is to teach our children to navigate the high seas of the internet. These are very high and often quite rough seas. You’ve got to start with a few basic principles of navigation—so you have your Pole star in the north—and then go into the detail.

I had a really bad experience setting up a Facebook page to help some Syrian refugees. Some of the comments were so awful, I couldn’t bear it. I wasn’t brave, calling people out on it—I just never opened it again.

But that’s okay, because one of the things we all do is to ignore it. I think that part of the necessary resilience is just ignoring this stuff. The example I give in the book is YouTube, which has promoted a channel called ‘No Hate Speech’ and actually, the comments on this channel are an anthology of hate speech. It starts with, “Hitler had the right idea,” and goes on down. If you find the page, it’s absolutely wonderful stuff.

So next on the list, you’ve got a book by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, How to Cure a Fanatic (2004). Why have you chosen this?

I absolutely love this book, firstly because it’s a beautifully written and very funny short book, and secondly because I think humour is unbelievably important as a way we use free speech to live with diversity. The Today programme, on BBC Radio 4, is full of mild ethnic joshing between the English, the Welsh, and the Scots. That’s the sign of a really healthy society, when you’ve got to the point that you can joke about it.

In my book I quote something terribly interesting, which is that in Senegal, which is a very diverse society, there are actually rituals of inter-ethnic joking. Everybody does jokes, and then, when they’re asked, ‘Why is it that people get on quite well with their neighbours?’ a large proportion of them say, ‘Because of these joking rituals.’ What Amoz Oz says is, ‘I have never met a fanatic who has a sense of humour, or someone with a sense of humour who is a fanatic.’ And therefore, he says, he wants to manufacture humour pills and have them distributed free around the Middle East. I think that’s just such a great insight.

He writes: “Fanaticism is unfortunately an ever-pressing component of human nature, an evil gene if you like.” I thought that was quite interesting, this idea that we all have a tendency toward fanaticism that has to be reined in.

Yes, but what’s so wonderful about the book, is it’s showing how dialogue, debate, free interaction, is one of the best ways of dealing with that. I quote in my book this wonderful song by Nina Simone, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” with the key line, ‘I wish you could know what it means to be me,’ and that’s it. There are two sides: you know what it means to be me, so it’s both the speaker and the listener. The way we live with difference is first of all by understanding where the other person is coming from.

There’s a Quaker saying which is perhaps a little bit idealistic but nonetheless rather beautiful, which is, ‘An enemy is a friend whose story you haven’t heard.’ Now, obviously that’s not true everywhere in all circumstances. If you’re facing the SS, you have to reach for your gun. Nonetheless, there’s a deep truth in there.

“There’s a Quaker saying: An enemy is a friend whose story you haven’t heard.”

The idea that you can manage a multicultural society, a society with people from everywhere speaking all languages, all faiths, all belief systems, by telling everybody to shut up seems to me profoundly superficial and illusory. The way you do it is by getting people to speak about their differences, even very difficult subjects, but in a context of robust civility. And humour is a great lubricant.

Oz has this wonderful passage where he quotes A Life of Brian, where the crowd chants, “We are all individuals, we are all individuals,” in unison, and then one person says, “I’m not, I’m not,” and they all try and shut him up. But he is one of those people, because he is this solitary voice. He’s one of those people holding out against an incredibly powerful consensus.

What’s he arguing for?

He’s absolutely for a two-state solution, peace now, although I suspect now he thinks it’s probably a hopeless cause.

Are fanatics generally a problem for free speech? Say in the context of Brexit. Some of the Brexiteers are so noisy that it gives this illusion that there’s huge demand for a hard Brexit. Doesn’t free speech favour the people who are talking the loudest?

I think there’s a more subtle point there. Free speech is not just about the laws you have, good or bad. It’s about the whole structure of communication. We’ve got into a situation now in the UK where it privileges the voices that shout. Partly that’s because we have the tabloids we have—the Eurosceptic press have been selling this really deceptive and mendacious narrative but selling it very powerfully. It’s also because of the echo chamber effect from the internet. Then you have the fact that the internet has simply cut the feet from under the business model of most newspapers. Therefore all newspapers are fighting for their life. They’re drowning. What do you do when you’re drowning? You wave and shout.So they’re all waving and shouting, ‘Come over here, give us your clicks!’ (and the advertising revenue that comes with those).

So we have a media landscape which—apart from the BBC, which becomes even more important—privileges the shouting voice. If it bleeds, it leads, if it roars, it scores. Funnily enough, I have had this experience with my own Guardian column. I’ve been writing a Guardian column for 15 years or so. The clicks you get sometimes are just amazing. Guardian online has a monthly audience of 40 million, so a recent one I did had a quarter of a million views. It’s fantastic.

“We’ve got into a situation now where it privileges the voices that shout”

But over that time I’ve noticed—and the comment page editor was acknowledging this the other day—that because you have to get the clicks, the editor is always looking for the piece which is shouting, and the sub is always looking for the sensational headline. So I think it’s more a point about the media landscape and the unintended consequence of the internet than the ability of the fanatical voice to win out over the reasonable one.

Let’s go on to book three on your list, Defending My Enemy (1979) by Aryeh Neier.

This is a most incredible story. Aryeh Neier is himself a Holocaust survivor. His family, who were Jewish, got out of Germany pretty much at the last minute. In the late 1970s he was running the ACLU— the American Civil Liberties Union—and decided to defend the right of a bunch of neo-Nazis to march through a town called Skokie, where a very large number of Holocaust survivors lived. You can imagine this was massively controversial. He got hate mail, many people resigned from the ACLU.

This book tells the story of that. What I find particularly moving is the first chapter, when he explains why he does it, and he says—I paraphrase—‘It’s not in spite of being Jewish, it’s precisely because I’m a Jewish Holocaust survivor that I know that free speech and the law is the defence of the weak against the strong. And if I ask that for myself, I have to ask it also for others, and so that’s why I’m defending my enemy.’

“How would I have behaved if I’d been an East German? Would I have been a dissident or a collaborator?”

So it’s not just a very coherent and powerful argument, it’s a very moving argument coming from the guy who’s writing it—and he went on, by the way, to be a terrific international human rights activist. He headed George Soros’s Open Society Foundation for many, many years. He has practised what he preached. But this is such a defining moment, and I remember my friend Christopher Hitchens saying to me that the Skokie case was one of the things that made him want to move to the United States. Those were the days when the United States really stood as a beacon for free speech and civil liberties.

Would you have done the same as Aryeh Neier?

You have to take the question in two parts. Part number one is the kind of question I asked myself when I was writing about my Stasi file which is how would I have behaved if I’d been an East German? Would I have been a dissident or a collaborator? I don’t know the answer to that question, how I would have behaved. Part two is, in principle, do I think he was right? Absolutely I think he was right.

What do you make of people who then cancelled their ACLU membership on the back of this? Do you think that’s reasonable?

A perfectly legitimate choice. You disagree with this profoundly, that’s fine. This is Milton, it’s Mill, it’s Aryeh Neier. In the famous formula, we must defend the thought we hate, not just the thoughts we like. I mean, in contemporary terms, I remember Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, once saying, ‘The internet platforms must ban this Islamist stuff, because these people have disgusting views.’ Well, free speech is not about banning disgusting views. It’s about going after them when they’re really dangerous. It’s about arguing with them. But the idea that just because they seem ‘disgusting’ to Theresa May is sufficient reason for them to be taken down by the internet platforms suggests she really hasn’t got the basic idea of free speech.

She needs to read your book.

And I hope she will soon have the leisure to do so.

I’ve noticed that quite a few tweets from people I follow don’t show anymore, but say: ‘This media may contain sensitive material.’ Why is that? Has something changed?

It very much has. One characteristic of this connected world is that we now have a global public sphere provided by a few private companies. There’s the notion of ‘POPS’—Privately Owned Public Spaces. Increasingly we’re getting our news from Facebook, not just exchanging family photos. So they have to face up to the fact that they have some public responsibilities. Then the question is, so how should they do that? What should be the rules of the game? One has to acknowledge that women and people from minorities do get massively harassed and bullied on Facebook and on Twitter and that’s a serious problem. They do have to provide us with the tools to defend ourselves.

“Free speech is not about banning disgusting views. It’s about going after them when they’re really dangerous”

That’s how I would put it, that I should be able to decide the level of privacy I want. You see, free speech is the right of both the speaker and the listener. I should be free to say what I want or not. The listener should be free to hear what he or she wants or not. So I should be able to block people on Twitter.

Now the problem arises—when I was talking to a human rights activist just a couple of days ago in Montreal, she was saying she got 16,000 tweets in a couple of days attacking her on one issue. Well, she can’t spend the day blocking 10,000 accounts. So there are problems of scale, but the principle is very simple. I should be able to decide.

How do you set about increasing civility on the internet? Maybe it’s again something that needs to be taught in school. Just as you’re taught to be polite and say, ‘how do you do,’ when you meet someone, maybe you should be taught that when you disagree on the internet, you shouldn’t launch into personal invective.

Education is incredibly important here. Going back to the navigation metaphor, we really are like people who are steering paddle boats around the lake and suddenly we’re on the high seas. That involves knowing about how you protect your privacy online, how you report really bad stuff, how to keep it away, how to find the good stuff, how to distinguish fake news from true news, but also how you engage with people. I quote in the book a technique, which I love, called ‘constructive controversy.’

I saw this in action in an academy school in east Oxford. Let’s take a controversial subject, the burka say. What’s your position on this? Ahmed argues for this position, and Joe argues for that position. That’s fine. Then you say, ‘Okay, now you have to swap and you have to make the opposite case.’ When that happens, you almost see a sort of light bulb going on in their eyes as they see, ‘Yes, I can imagine what it would be like to see it from their point of view.’

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The question of effective counter-speech on the internet is something I’m working on now. How do you do it? How do you actually make it work? Anonymity is a big problem. I call it Janus Anonymous. On the one hand the death threats and the hate speech is coming from anonymous. On the other hand, if you’re a dissident in Iran, or in an oppressive religious community, anonymity is a lifeline for you.

Your next book is: Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1997) by the South African Nobel Prize winner J M Coetzee. Quite an interesting collection of essays, isn’t it? He seems not to have made up his mind.

The reason I chose this is that so much of the literature on free speech is either law or philosophy or politics. Here is a writer, a very fine writer, going at it through literature, and what is literature about if not free speech? How we use language, how we interact. What’s so interesting about it is that he looks at the mental state of being offended, and he looks at it with examples from Dostoevsky and Dickens and elsewhere. He says the state of being offended is always the mark of someone who’s unsure of their own position, it’s a mark of weakness. It’s the mark of the bully and the buffoon, and I think that’s a very powerful insight. In saying, ‘I am offended,’ you’re revealing something about yourself.

“The state of being offended is the mark of someone who’s unsure of their own position”

If I extend that story and think about South Africa, I don’t think Nelson Mandela ever took offence—although heaven knows he had reason to be offended by the treatment he was receiving. He maintained his dignity. His position was, ‘You’re the people who are being diminished by this, you’re the people who are losing your dignity, not me.’ This goes against the grain of much contemporary western society, as one sees it in universities and elsewhere, which is almost incitement to take offence. People are being encouraged to take offence at anything they find slightly offensive. Even, for example, Germaine Greer being invited to lecture at a university: ‘I take offence because of her views on trans people.’

So you really feel that in terms of the challenges to free speech, that kind of readiness for everybody to take offence is a problem.

Free speech is also about what kind of people do we want to be? What kind of people do we want our children to be? Do we want them to follow the example of Mandela, or Václav Havel or Aung San Suu Kyi as role models and say, ‘While you’re trying to humiliate and degrade me, you’re humiliating and degrading yourself.’ Or is your role model the person who’s going to say, ‘I’m offended, I’m offended, I’m offended.’ But also, language, literature. Again, Amos Oz and Coetzee are about the same thing. How do we use this defining human gift, which is language—no one else in the animal kingdom has it—to negotiate our differences without coming to blows? That’s essentially what it’s about.

Let’s move to your final pick, The Master Switch (2010) by Tim Wu. Why should we read this book?

In this completely transformed world of the internet, you have so many different subjects. It’s not just law and philosophy and literature, it’s also computers and it’s also very much about business. Tim Wu is an American ‘cyberlawyer’—a new category of human being—and a rather brilliant one. He’s the guy who coined the term ‘net neutrality,’ which we all use now.

The focus is on information businesses. He says that these are a new kind of business, he says, and that one thing we simply didn’t know 20 years ago is that the network effects on the internet are so powerful that within a very short period of time we have private superpowers—these absolutely massive information empires which have fantastic concentrations of power. If Facebook were a country, it would be the largest country on Earth, with 1.9 billion going on to 2 billion regular monthly users.

“If Facebook were a country, it would be the largest country on Earth”

The American constitutional tradition, including the First Amendment, is brilliant at controlling public power. It’s very good at taking on President Donald Trump. It’s amazing how well it’s responded to Trump. But it’s very bad at controlling private power, and the challenge now is as much about private power—Facebook, Google, and Twitter—as it is about public power. I love the way he explores at the intersection of law, politics, engineering and business, how these information empires have developed, and then the question is how should you try to create checks and balances?

And how should you?

It’s a very difficult question and there’s no simple answer to it. We’ve now got to the stage where they’re so big and so rich and have such cash powers that when some very clever Brits develop something called DeepMind, so they buy DeepMind. Or someone clever develops something called WhatsApp, so they buy WhatsApp. They can buy up the competition. I think there has to be a series of answers of which part is definitely anti-trust. These are near-monopolies. I know because I spend a lot of time talking to people high up in these companies—because I spend three months a year in Stanford and therefore Silicon Valley—that’s what they’re really frightened of, because of their dominant position, particularly in Europe.

But also, if you take Facebook’s news feed, they could swing an election. If they really slanted everything that came across on news feeds to favour the Republicans or the Democrats, they could probably swing that election. So actually you have to think of them, as a kind of media power with some sort of media responsibility. On the other hand, I don’t want to see that being done to Google Search, because Google Search is exactly what it says on the tin, and should be what it says on the tin, a place where I can find everything that’s out there according to some criteria of relevance.

But isn’t that their criteria?

Understand that being a news feed, i.e. a news platform, a media platform, is one thing, being a search engine is another. We have to take these things apart, and then say to ourselves, ‘What is it we really want to ask them?’ And be careful what you wish for, because what’s happened with this famous European court ruling on the right to be forgotten is that now, in effect, Google is exercising a kind of arbitrary censorship, taking down hundreds of thousands, even millions, of links in ways which are not transparent, not accountable, not appealable.

In the book, he’s looking at the history as well. He’s saying that when the telephone started—or the telegraph—when all these things started, everybody thought it was all going to be great, but then they end up in the hands of corporates. It’s a sort of cautionary tale. Don’t think because the internet has started all happy and good that it’s going to end up not going down the same route.

It’s interesting. This book is from 2010. That was seen as rather an original thing to say then. In 2017, people think, ‘my god, what do you mean, they’re so wonderful?’ The perception has changed, but if you go back to the 1990s, it really was, ‘The internet will set you free.’ It was this cyber-libertarian poppycock that you find with every new technology, including printing. It’s hailed as a thing that will set people free, and, at the same time, you always have the catastrophists who say it’ll be the end of human civilisation as we know it. Of course the truth is that it’s neither heaven nor hell.

“I think one of the really important things that we need to do at the moment is to try and get our act together as liberals”

But he’s very interesting in his analysis about complex things. There are serious reasons to be worried about some of the stuff they’re doing, but I don’t think the answer to it is to bring in a law against everything, which, particularly in Germany, is what is being proposed at the moment. I spend a lot of time in Germany, and the debate is ‘big, bad American private superpowers’ versus ‘good, virtuous German and European public powers.’ I don’t think that’s the answer actually. We’ll end up over-regulating them and destroying some of the good things that they do.

But anti-trust involves a regulator.

Anti-trust is a really important place for regulation. But with a lot of this stuff—like what do we want them to do on news feeds, or what do we want them to do about hate speech, and so on—you’ll get much farther, in my experience, with a kind of constructive engagement with these companies, because they’re desperately trying to work out what to do. If you look at the world from the Googleplex, or Facebook headquarters, these amazing—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to them, but they make Washington look slightly dowdy—you’re looking round the world and you’re getting competing demands from every side. Everyone is asking something of you, but every demand is different. Even NGOs—free speech NGOs want you to take down less content, women’s rights and minority rights want you to take down more content, so what the hell are you going to do?

I think one of the really important things that we need to do at the moment is to try and get our act together as liberals, in the broader sense within civil society, and say what are the four or five most important things we want Facebook to do, or Google to do, or Twitter to do?

You mentioned IFEX, this network of free speech organisations. Do you feel there’s enough people working on this and thinking about it?

I don’t think there are enough people, because we now suddenly are in this world where you have giant public superpowers, China, America, Europe, and giant private superpowers, but all these relatively small non-governmental organisations that are slightly fragmented and diverse. That makes for creativity and originality and so on, but it doesn’t make for scale. If you’re trying to get attention from Facebook or Google, or indeed from China or the United States, you need a certain scale. That’s a real problem, actually.

Also, I think one has to distinguish between these various platforms. I love Twitter because it’s an explicitly public platform. It is explicitly for public debate. It’s a brilliant way of having public debate. If someone says something really outrageous, stupid, deeply offensive, they get called out on it straight away. I posted some fake news myself.

You did?

Someone did a montage of two photos from parliament, the House of Commons. One showed a completely empty chamber, when apparently they were debating social care or something terribly important for millions of people. The other showed a packed chamber, when they were allegedly debating MPs’ pay. I tweeted this. Within five minutes, I had three people come back at me back saying this was fake news, and that the picture of the full chamber was actually them debating student fees, not MPs’ pay. That’s a great example of where social media can actually be used to refute fake news.

Yes, because the problem with Facebook is you’re supposed to be friends. So you might have a friend who believes that vaccinations caused her son’s life-threatening allergies and puts up a lot of anti-vaccination stuff on her feed. You completely disagree, but you don’t feel you can say, “This is nonsense.”

You’ve got it in one. In my book I quote some really good studies which show that there’s much more hate speech on Facebook than on Twitter for that very simple reason, that you’re supposed to be friends. So people don’t call each other out, even if they should. Whereas on Twitter—I think the study was in Kenya, where people were saying really nasty things about other tribes or ethnic groups—they were being called out. So you should go on Twitter. You must be on Twitter?

We are, we are. @Five_Books.

And so am I. @fromTGA. I love it.

Interview by Sophie Roell