What effect does the Internet and globalization have on ‘freedom of expression?’ The emerging debate posits a new freedom and openness in communication and its capacity to transcend borders, against a growing power of states and other powerful entities to monitor and control information flows. This dichotomy is strong, but some argue there is a third effect on freedom of expression that is not being as strongly considered: The Internet and a new global communication regime has resulted in competing theories of free expression – held by different cultures and countries – to cross borders, clash, and transform discourse and debate. Changes in technologies and global communications has meant that freedom of expression and what this concept entails, has become both the battleground and the weapon used by states and other major players in the information age.
This is one of the subjects of Monroe Price’s latest book, Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication released by Cambridge University Press in December 2014. Last week, The GovLab at NYU and the Media, Culture and Communication program at NYU Steinhardt held an event to discuss the book with the author. The book is a successor to Prof. Price’s 2002 book, Media & Sovereignty, in which he discussed the effect of globalization on media practices, institutions and content.
Prof. Price, a renowned communications scholar, former Dean of Cardozo Law School and Director of the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, opened the evening by reflecting on the current dichotomy of information policy – though the Internet has created an unprecedented amount of freedom and fluidity in information flows, it is also providing states and other powerful entities with new ways to surveil citizens and monitor communication. Price argues that, to overcome this doublethink, states and other major players are using “strategic communication,” rhetorically embracing transparency and openness, while increasing surveillance and other modes of control.
Building on examples such as the Arab Spring, Wikileaks, and Iran’s perception of foreign broadcasting, Price described what he argues are two competing anxieties of free expression within the current information era: the anxiety of the loss of control over information flows, and the anxiety of missed opportunities for greater freedom of expression.
The talk was followed by a panel discussion between Rodney Benson, Associate Professor of NYU Steinhardt Department of Media, Culture and Communication, and Agnes Callamard, Director for The Global Freedom of Expression & Information Center at Columbia University and was moderated by Stefaan Verhulst, the Co-Founder and Chief Research at The GovLab at NYU.
The panel discussion centered, among other things, on the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, and how local and global cultures, and architects of technologies, such as Google, shape freedom of expression and other information policies, in the digital era. Between the three panelists, a number of themes and questions emerged:
- What is the role of the state in ensuring free speech?
- After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, are we entering into an era of “free speech absolutism” and what cultures will define the limitations or expansion of free speech in the global digital age?
- How are information architects, like Google, building free speech into or out of information technologies?
- What is the emerging role that data is playing in the spread of social values? How are we embedding values into the data being released by governments, corporations, or other entities, to the public?
Though he does not promise to answer all of these questions, Monroe Price’s new book is a great start for enquiring scholars of media and information policy, as well as for others interested in how freedom of expression is being shaped by geopolitics and technology within the current information era. His book is available in hard cover, paperback and for Kindle, through Cambridge University Press and Amazon.com.