Free speech online: For & Against

The arguments for and against free speech are both compelling in isolation, so how tolerant should we be of intolerant comments?

Tuesday, 8 June, 2021

While the internet has undoubtedly been a force for good, it has come at a high price.

The deliberately egalitarian nature of online connectivity has given the single parent in a bedsit the same reach and ability to network as a life peer in a stately home.

It underpins crowdfunding programmes, grassroots support campaigns and information sharing.

Yet while these are often positive in nature, they can also be disruptive, offensive or damaging to society.

In the anything-goes world of the internet, arguments for and against free speech are put forward with a vigour that actually demonstrates what the former approach can accomplish.

Where does inflammatory but reasoned commentary become hate speech? Where does harsh but acceptable criticism become abuse? And who decides where the tipping point comes?

Here are two arguments for and against free speech. See which one you associate with more closely.

In favour of free speech

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee devised the internet in 1991, he intended it to be decentralised. One connection, one voice.

Any attempts to undermine that would damage the principle of net neutrality, which so many people have fought to defend whenever web traffic management has been proposed.

The internet is inherently democratic, but some people are still desperate to ensure their vision of what’s ‘right’ and ‘acceptable’ is the only one that receives the oxygen of publicity.

We’ve seen a pro-censorship lobby taking root in the UK recently, with no-platforming and a thriving cancel culture alongside a growing intolerance of satire and robust debate.

We’ve seen mobs throwing statues into rivers, and universities banning guest speakers who aren’t deemed inclusive enough – by people whose own attitudes are often far from inclusive.

Worse, any perceived transgression (however slight, unintentional or misconstrued) leads to howls of outrage and demands for punishment or future censorship.

In the post-truth, post-Trump world, nobody is above opprobrium. Trump himself was banned from social media in January, after allegedly inciting the Capitol riots.

If an American President can be silenced by private companies answerable only to their founders and shareholders, free speech as a concept is clearly under threat.

And if European history has taught us anything, it’s that banning free speech and free association is often the thin end of a very unsavoury wedge.

Censorship and one-party states are inextricably intertwined, whereas democratic countries are duty-bound to engage with opposing opinions, rather than silence them.

Just because an opinion is controversial, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Something upsetting shouldn’t be outlawed or muted by default. It might even become accepted wisdom one day.

Against free speech

Imagine you’re a Premier League footballer. You’ve played well, scored a goal, and celebrated with your teammates in the dressing room.

Back on the team coach, you notice a large number of social media notifications. But they’re not all congratulations or post-match analysis. Some are racist abuse.

If you’ve never been the victim of intolerance and bigotry, it’s hard to describe the fury that boils up. And it’s impotent fury, because such abuse is often anonymous and usually unanswerable.

Banning hate speech has become a key plank of Governmental and regulatory policy, but you can’t prevent trolling and abuse if speech itself remains unregulated.

Indeed, in many instances, it’s already regulated.

You don’t receive every email sent to your account because Bayesian filters weed out spam. The spammers might argue they have a right to be heard, but who wants to listen?

Newspapers don’t publish every letter to the editor, and message board moderators remove potentially offensive content in real time.

And if you don’t like the policies of a particular website, university student council, social media platform or newspaper, you can always vote with your feet and leave.

It’s hard to apply unbiased context to online content, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother.

We need better algorithms, more moderators and clearer definitions of what’s unacceptable to prevent trolling, cyber-bullying, grooming and exploitation from flourishing online.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!