Opinionista Gabriella Razzano 18 July 2016

Truth in the age of internet shutdowns

Could the South African government legitimately be proposing that shutting down the Internet would be a justifiable measure for dealing with a hate speech complaint? Surely not

South Africa, alongside regimes like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, tried to weaken provisions in a UN resolution for ‘the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet. When a country that prides itself on a progressive Constitution seems to dramatically veer off the track of rights acknowledgments increasingly accepted elsewhere, it is up to rights-thinking people to ask “Why?”

The South African delegation provided three core justifications to support their dissent, namely:

  1. The South African Constitution enshrines freedom of expression as not being absolute;
  2. Incitement to hatred and racism are justifiable limitations on this right; and
  3. The resolution fails to make specific reference to acts of hatred propagated through cyberspace, including cyber-bullying.

However, the resolution certainly speaks of freedom of expression, but that is not the main content of what it addresses. In fact, the resolution considers the role of the Internet as both a facilitator, and realm, for the realisation of a broad array of rights (I have considered the broad relationship between a variety of rights and the Internet in Africa elsewhere). Already, then, the limited framing of the argument could make you suspect the main substance of the resolution has been misunderstood.

Perhaps, though, we should give the South African delegation the benefit of the doubt, and consider that they merely have a very specific fair for the limitations on freedom of expression alone. It seems strange then to have completely ignored all the various points at which the resolution acknowledges that – obviously – when looking at this aspect of the right to Internet, it is done so within the common understanding of the rights framework that always acknowledges legitimate exemptions. For instance, it refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a framing document, which provides specifically for justifiable domestic limitations. The specific affirmation that the “rights people have offline must be protected online” would of course include considerations of Internet endemic problems such as cyber-bullying. I think the real humdinger is contained in the sentence in which all signees specifically stress “…the importance of combating advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination or violence on the Internet”.

So if the justification has been shown to not make sense in relation to the framing or principles of the resolution as it actually stands, might the justification be referring to an action the resolution specifically allows for? On the face of South Africa’s argument, you would be forgiven for thinking it had a clause specifically allowing for the Internet as an untouchable site for facilitating racist speech and hatred. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, the main thrust of what makes the resolution special is contained in one key prohibition that:

Condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures”.

Could the South African government legitimately be proposing that shutting down the Internet would be a justifiable measure for dealing with a hate speech complaint? That is simply untenable. We have legislation, with recourse measures, that already directly engages on how cases of hate speech, incitement to violence, and harassment (including online harassment such as cyber-bullying) must be dealt with in the South African environment. “Mass Internet shutdown” is not one of the avenues for recourse in any of these constitutionally sound laws.

The refrain from shutting down the Internet occurs at a moment in a history when we are experiencing a global crisis on shutdowns. Turkey, in spite of being a signatory, shut down Facebook, Youtube and Twitter during the recent coup attempt (begging the obvious question as to how citizens should have been able to effectively mobilise against the coup forces when requested to do so by their President). Other very recent examples include Zimbabwe, Chad, India and Ethiopia. So real is this threat, that there is a global #KeepItOn campaign of which I am a proud signatory.

So let’s turn back to South Africa’s undeniably weak (actually, perhaps better described as “false”) justification for voting against a resolution that tries to directly mitigate against a very real threat to the access to information environment. And when I look at the justification there is only one tenable response: I call bullshit. There is a useful essay by Harry Frankfurt called “On Bullshit”, which provides substance for this position. Frankfurt notes here that bullshit is not the same as lying. In fact in some contexts it is worse, as the speaker does not care about the truth-value of what they say (unlike the liar who has to care to make his lie effective), but only that – regardless of the truth – we view them in a certain light. The elaborate construction of a false argument by the delegation is used to distract us from viewing the reason they took the decision they did, so that we continue to view them positively. The South African delegation is being disingenuous about bringing in ideals from our Constitution to try and justify acts that actually directly contradict its spirit – and this is done on purpose to try and distract “rights respecting” citizens from inspecting the substance of the resolution at hand.

I would propose that, if we had to seek truthful justifications, we could hypothesize two equally worrying ones for their vote. The first is that, in order to show allegiance to certain partners such as Russia and China, the South African government is willing to remain blind and silent on the abuse of human rights that would be expressed by Internet shutdowns. The second is that, in spite of what our Constitution says, South Africa is trying to reserve a right to shut down the Internet, and by not explicitly saying they will not, hoping the constitutional provisions that would clearly not allow for this could be manipulated or misinterpreted later.

Either option is, quite simply, bullshit. DM

Gabriella Razzano is an Internet Governance Forum Academy Fellow


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