Mass media, according to a letter sent to the government of Poland, 'are the property of the whole human family. Everybody has a right to use them'.This was not a complaint to the allegedly dictatorial Law & Justice party of today, but to the bluntly oppressive communist regime in 1978. The bishops of that traditionally Christian land, whose people had refused to bow to Marxist atheism, could just as well have been writing of the current censorial tendencies on the internet: -
'We all know that the spirit of freedom is the proper climate for the full development of a person. Without freedom a person is stunted and all progress halts. Not to allow people with a different social and political and ideology to speak is unjust. State censorship has always been and remains a weapon of totalitarian systems.'
'The aim is not only to influence the mental life of society and public opinion but to paralyse the cultural and religious life of the people. Social life requires frankness and freedom of opinion. Censorship places blinkers over the eyes of our people…it misinforms them and – even worse – releases them from responsibility for their nation.'
In its dawn at the turn of the millennium, the internet seemed to promise liberty for people all over the world. Instead, this tremendous technology is being exploited by governments, public institutions and commercial firms to clamp down on inconvenient truths. The social media companies, playing their role in the putative New World Order, are colluding with authorities to punish and expel people with the wrong opinions. This is a serious threat to freedom of speech, and to democracy.
Some argue that Twitter, Facebook and Google are private companies with a right to refuse customers. But effectively they are monopolies. It would be unconscionable for a water provider to suddenly cut off a community's water supply. As social interaction increasingly shifts from face-to-face to online contact, to evict someone from a ubiquitous medium is to deny a basic human right to engage with others.
Obviously there should be consequences for inciting violence or extremely offensive remarks, but the threshold has been lowered. At least, it has been lowered for one side of the political spectrum. As Twitter head Jack Dorsey admits, the tech giants of Silicon Valley are dominated by liberal-left thinking. Supporting Antifa or Hamas is okay, but not a criticism of mass immigration or Islam. Literally anything conservative or libertarian might be reported as 'hate speech'.
Political debate is not a primary school project. It is inherently combative, and robust argument is part of the process: if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. But politicians are using instances of rude and abusive messages to demand repressive legislation. Labour MP Lucy Powell tabled a motion to break into private Facebook chatrooms, because they are spreading falsehoods or hatred. Theresa May has voiced her support for criminalising 'trolls', which may include ordinary people expressing their frustration at their representative doing the opposite of what they promised at the doorstep.
Our masters in Brussels are showing much interest in controlling the media, both the traditional newspapers and the public forum of the internet. Last week EU commissioner Vera Jourova demanded regulation to stop British newspapers writing bad things about the EU and its esteemed leaders. Irreverent headlines such as 'EU Dirty Rats' after Theresa May's humiliation at the Salzburg conference should be banished. Apparently, these awful rags are largely to blame for Brexit.
Politicians like to dress in the well-worn clothes of Enlightenment values. But they betray their authoritarian motives by adding the word 'but' to free speech. Recently a bill to control memes and hyperlinks was passed by the European parliament. The European Commission plans to fund projects for 'development of technology and innovative web tools preventing and countering illegal hate speech online'. There is no need to reinvent the wheel: the Chinese communist regime has shown the way in controlling internet use by citizens. Member states will be forced to take action on news outlets that spread disrespectful ideas.
As Jeremy Hunt commented, the EU is becoming more like the USSR. The European Commission also announced that it will provide financial support for 'online narratives promoting EU values, tolerance and respect to EU fundamental rights'. Meanwhile a river of propaganda flows into our schools: as Lenin said, get them at their youngest. Internalise the approved ideology.
As an Orwellian grip is tightening on online discourse, perhaps we must save our candour for the pub. Until the EU fits listening devices there too. Anything the Soviet bloc could do, Brussels can do better. But as the bishops of Poland knew, truth cannot be denied forever.