Right now, one of the major national discussions (in Sweden) is about hate speech on the Internet. It seems like Swedish mainstream media is interested in turning this into a “gun control debate”. Yesterday, there was a documentary on Uppdrag Granskning which pointed out the vile hatred and slander directed against young women on the Internet who are expressing opinions related to feminism or immigration. The hatred is directed from the usual suspects – far right trolodytes. It is not directly expressed in the documentary, but implicitly understood, that Uppdrag Granskning (and major liberal and socialist media outlets like Aftonbladet, Expressen and so on) would want to see increased monitoring of the Internet.
To a large extent, the Internet has become a haven for anti-establishment misfits – of whom a large amount are “angry white males”. In Sweden, the largest discussion forum is Flashback, and it has come to be defined by a politically reactionary discourse marked by resistance against immigration, anti-feminism, racism, pro-prostitution and pro-drug legalisation opinions, largely reflecting a demographic which is overwhelmingly male, young and angry. Internationally, one of the largest political forums is /pol/ on 4chan, and it is too pock-marked by racism, sexism and anti-egalitarian views.
While I would say that more politeness and less political cheerleading (as opposed to political discussion) is needed in society overall, I do believe this focus on the Internet as something negative is expressing something else. In the 1990s, the Internet was overally viewed as a positive thing for Mainstream Media, because it was a part of the “end-of-the-cold-war”-discourse and because it created growth opportunities on a new market. Now, when alternative media is starting to outcompete traditional media outlets, Mainstream Media feels the old traditional urge to restrict and control the competition in order to keep their privileges. Because legally, the sites are responsible for the content according to Swedish law, not the individual posters.
The Internet knows no borders either. Flashback has been banned in Sweden since the 1990s, but is hosted on foreign servers. Thus, any new regulations would probably lead to counter-reactions.
Ultimately, the political left should not ally with governments and major corporations in curbing the Internet. Firstly because the left too is (?) opposed to the establishment that is and is imagining an alternative world. Secondly, to give the government the authority to control the Internet will create even more resistance, and probably a merger between the xenophobic troglodytes and the Internet anarchists (Wikileaks, Anonymous), which can only retard the development of a progressive social discourse (but that would be beneficial to the powers that be).
The nation-state cannot any more hope to control the currents of information. Of course, hate speech, rabble-rousing, child pornography and other vile and damaging content needs to be removed from the Internet – because real human beings are hurt. That creates the need for a compromise. I believe that instead of fighting the hacker community, civil society would need to approach the hackers and arm them with the authority to act as a cleaning brigade on the Internet, targeting illegal content.
At the same time, I also believe that there has been too much web politics based around the idea that everything that people don’t like should be abolished. At the end, that would lead to a conflict where we try to remove things instead of debating them, and no one would be better off because of such censorship.
Apart from the governments and mega-corporations.
/Sequence Director of Relations, the Earth Organisation for Sustainability