Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age

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Freedom of speech is under threat around the world. On one side of this battle are governments and corporations seeking, to various degrees, to set limits on what is acceptable to say and what is not. On the other are ordinary citizens and activists demanding that their voices be heard--voices that, in this new age of smart-phones and social media, are harder than ever to silence, even as technology puts new implements of censorship into the hands of autocrats. In many eases, the battle is being joined in societies that are struggling with the powerful repercussions of free expression for the first time.

This year certainly saw great personal courage and selfless leadership in the struggle for free speech reminiscent of the bravery displayed in earlier decades, complete with faro/liar antagonists and tools of repression. Among FOREIGN POLICY'S 2012 Global Thinkers, there is Chen Guangcheng (No. 9), the blind human fights activist who made a harrowing escape from China and is now living in exile in New York; Ahlem Belhadj (No. 18), the Tunisian feminist leading the fight to make sure the revolution doesn't backfire on women as she tries to block attempts to revive polygamy and female circumcision, among other regressive measures; and Bassel Khartabil (No. 19), an innovative Syrian activist who defied President Bashar al-Assad and has not been heard from since his arrest in March. I also must mention Adela Navarro Bello (No. 76), whose Tijuana magazine is investigating the bank accounts and investments of Mexico's drug cartel bosses in a country where 40 journalists have been murdered or have disappeared in the past six years. (She travels with bodyguards.) And just as the underground rock bands of the 1980s rallied youth against a decaying Soviet Union with their lyrics of defiance, there are even punk rockers featured among these Global Thinkers, though Russian band Pussy Riot (No. 16) may legitimately claim to have no equal in the world of pop-culture protest.

Yet the impetus for revisiting free speech, as FOREIGN POLICY urges us to do with this year-end issue, is precisely the opposite: not to dwell on the familiar, but to take stock of the sweeping changes before us and the profoundly altered dimensions of both free speech and the actions required to preserve it. This is a distinct moment in time when even our shared understanding of what constitutes expression is evolving fight along with radical advances in communications technology. Many on this year's list--from Twitter's in-house lawyer, Alexander Macgillivray (No. 66), to the U.S. naval lab researchers (No. 78) who created a safe, anonymous way for allowing those who might be silenced online to speak--are struggling in different ways to help us define (and protect) this most fundamental of freedoms at a moment when the available tools for safeguarding speech have become much harder to identify, let alone employ. Increasingly, governments are using laws criminalizing the "defamation" of religion as a tool to repress free speech. The NGO Human Rights First documented more than 100 recent examples of "gross abuse" of such laws around the world, many of them in Muslim countries. Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon seemed to question free speech as an absolute right after the release of the video Innocence of Muslims sparked riots across the Islamic world insisting that "when some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others' values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected."

Three changes in particular distinguish this era's tensions surrounding global free expression from the battles of the past:

First, progress in a globally interdependent society relies more than ever on the unimpeded flow of information. With national commerce and finance so thoroughly woven into the fabric of the modern global economy and countries finding themselves dependent on each other in fundamentally new ways, we have left behind the time when any single country, even the United States, could effectively address matters of great consequence on its own. …