President Obama’s UN Speech, the Free Flow of Information and the Global Marketplace of Ideas

by Daniel O'Connor on September 26, 2012

President Obama delivered a moving speech at the United Nations today in which he paid tribute to the slain U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. He also addressed the misguided calls to remove the amateur and repulsive video that sparked the firestorm (or, more accurately, served as a thinly veiled excuse to wreak havoc for havoc’s sake).

We live in a rapidly changing world.  Sparked by the Internet revolution, media and communications networks have gone global and quixotic attempts by states to control them have proved relatively futile (though, unfortunately, not entirely).  As a result of the rapid globalization and disintermediation of communications, multinational Internet platforms — including Youtube, Facebook, Twitter — find themselves in an uncomfortable position.  They are often called on to make decisions with geopolitical implications, but they themselves do not have the governmental legitimacy to make tough decisions that balance fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, with other political or societal goals.  On the flip side, they exist in the transnational ether where no individual country can claim sovereignty over platforms that facilitate communications between citizens of countries all over the world.   As the global fight over the free flow of information advances, the decisions and foundational principles of multinational Internet companies — and not just those of individual countries and multinational governance entities — will help shape the future of communications and the freedom of speech and interaction online.

The answer to bigots and jerks who use their freedom of communications to spew idiotic bile is to counter that filth with logic, reason and compassion.  At the same time, the answer to those who use the wonderful communications tools the Internet has spawned for ill is not to shut down those mediums of communication, but to use those platforms to counter-message and educate.  At the end of the day, the Internet helps globalize the marketplace for ideas.  Although the journey will likely be chaotic as much of the world adjusts to ideas and notions they were not allowed access to before, more open communications will — over time — be a force for good as reason and logic will more often than not win out over insanity.  As illustrated by the economic chaos of nations that quickly switched from closed economies to open markets, the transition will be turbulent and imperfect over the short run but will bear fruit over the long run.  Enshrining the free flow of information as a bedrock principle of multinational and transnational diplomacy should be a priority for governments and the companies that operate the global platforms for communications–even in the face of temporary setbacks like what recently engulfed the Middle East.

With that in mind, I call attention to a key excerpt of President Obama’s UN Speech.  (Furthermore, I call attention to the fact that I am using Youtube — the same platform that was used to spread the video that provided impetus for the chaos — to share the President’s measured response to the tragedy).

I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Moreover, as President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we disagree with.

We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech. Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.

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