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Free speech vs safety: Governments grapple with social media

Governments today are grappling with the new fold psychological, social and legal issues social media brings with it.

As social media becomes an indispensable instrument for people, politicians, and states for everyday use, it has also blurred the lines between the virtual and real world.

Deniz Unay, a social media expert, told social media has become an important tool for malevolent individuals and illegal groups.

“It has been observed that social media is not only used for socializing or for governments and non-governmental organizations (NGO) to send official posts but also an area for illegal groups and those who desire to abuse it,” he said, adding that despite the necessity of reining in this phenomenon, there has not been a strong global effort.

Kamil Ekinci, a Turkish lawyer, tried to explain the legal perspective of the issue in terms of international law.

He said posts on social media are stated as the freedom of expression, opinion, information and opinion exchange in the first paragraph of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers,” according to the article.

However, he stressed that these freedoms also bring significant responsibilities, according to Article 10, paragraph two of the document.

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary,” it said.

Responsible behavior

Ekinci said the articles show that freedoms granted to individuals impose responsibilities at the same time.

“These responsibilities restrict individuals in making posts that disrupt the public order,” he said.

Therefore, he said, all kinds of behaviors such as threats, insults, blackmail, and sexual abuse, which constitute a crime in real life, are also a crime on social media platforms.

Stressing the responsibilities of authorities, he said rather than imposing criminal sanctions on this issue, authorities should develop a counteraction plan against the sharing of posts, including such crimes as provocative and fake news, which will constitute a problem on public order.

He said many states have begun to take different actions, such as legislative regulations, against the negative or illegal contents on social media.

“For example, according to the legislation that was enacted in Germany in 2017, the posts that are clearly illegal and contain hate speech on online platforms should be removed within 24 hours,” he said.

He said if the platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter do not remove content within 24 hours, they have to pay a fine of up to 50 million euros ($54.2 million).

He also said Singapore has approved a law that makes it a crime to produce and spread fabricated news on the internet and social media and those found guilty might be jailed for up to 10 years in prison.

Stressing the crimes and threats in the virtual world, he said many countries, including Russia and Australia, approved similar or heavy legal regulations on using social media and the internet.

However, he also added that some countries restrict freedoms and rights by referring to crimes on social media.

“For example, India stopped access to the internet in many cities by the end of 2019 in response to actions protesting the controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslims,” he said.

“In India, in response to actions protesting the controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslims, authorities have increased security and stopped access to the internet in many cities by the end of 2019.”

Ekinci also added that a lot of countries such as China, Iran, and even some European countries, restrict social media and the internet to control their citizens.

As another way to stop the manipulations on social media, he said China tries to ban access to U.S.-based social media apps such as Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter.

“Chinese authorities only permit China-based apps such as We Chat. However, the Chinese government also uses this as a tool to control the citizens,” he said.

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