Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World

Sep 30, 2016

In today's connected world--a "cosmopolis" dominated by the "four superpowers" Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon--what we need is to have more but also better free speech, declares Garton Ash. The West, particularly the U.S., should strive to promote global free speech, and we must foster a "robust civility" despite our differences.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for beginning your day with us.

It is always a special morning when Timothy Garton Ash stands at this podium, so I'm delighted to welcome him here once again. Today he will be discussing his latest book, entitled Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.

As you all should have received a copy of his bio, let me just briefly mention that our distinguished guest is currently the Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow Professor at St Antony's College at Oxford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

He is also the guiding light behind the multilingual website, the purpose of which is to promote a global debate on free expression. also serves as an integral part of his book, in which he advances the discussion about what principles of free speech should govern in a connected world.

It is no surprise that, having spent a lifetime writing about dissidents and dictators, our guest should be concerned about the freedom to express oneself and just how pivotal an issue it is for world politics, especially in a world that is populated by people of every faith, political creed, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, caste, and clan. In this connected world, one that Professor Garton Ash calls the "cosmopolis," we have come to realize that there are not only unprecedented opportunities to publish one's view and be heard, but there is also the danger that these same views can be used to inflict harm.

Today, there is no shortage of issues concerning free speech. For example, did the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists cross a line that separates free speech from toxic talk? Should college campuses be allowed to disinvite commencement speakers? And to what extent should authoritarian governments be able to squelch dissent?

Since the traditional way of regulating expression doesn't seem to work as well in this new digital environment, the basic challenge is how we can create a cultural and moral climate in which proper public argument is possible and human dignity affirmed. This is an issue that we at the Carnegie Council also care deeply about.

New freedoms call for new rules. In raising such questions as what limits should there be to say what we want, write what we want, and show what we want, we need guidance. To provide that assistance on how to create the principles and conditions needed in which we agree on how we disagree, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a very special guest, Timothy Garton Ash.


TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. It's a great pleasure to be here again. If anything I say displeases you, blame it on the microphone. [Laughter]

Let me start by telling you a story. In the summer of 2011, a young woman called Lily Dionne went to Hollywood, like so many before her, hoping to make her name as a movie star. She answered an advertisement in Craigslist for a film shoot, which was then called Desert Warrior.

It turned out to be a very peculiar movie shoot. It was set in the Middle East 2,000 years ago, but the chief character was called George. She did wonder what George was doing in the Middle East 2,000 years ago.

Another bit part actor had to, at one point, murder a pregnant woman in a particularly brutal fashion, then raise his bloody sword and cry, "George is the messenger and the book is our constitution." Some of you may begin to see where this is heading. They were then called back in to record some individual words, such as "Muhammad," for example.

A few months later, someone calling himself Sam Bacile posted on YouTube a 30-minute profoundly Islamophobic movie, which came to be known as Innocence of Muslims. It was described by none other than Salman Rushdie with one well-chosen word, "crap." And indeed, crap it was.

Nobody took any notice, because as you all know, every second of every day mountains of rubbish are being posted on the Internet—until a Coptic Christian extremist picked this up, which was then picked up by a Cairo newspaper, which was then picked up by a popular Egyptian Salafist preacher and broadcaster. The date was the 9th of September 2012.

Then the balloon went up. It exploded. The Egyptian Salafis organized a large and rowdy demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the main point of which was to show that the Muslim Brotherhood then in power were not proper Muslims because they weren't protesting against this movie.

As you all know, in Benghazi the U.S. consulate facility was surrounded. A violent attack resulted in the brutal murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. As you also know, the exact role played by the video in that attack is disputed. But New York Times reporters were told that the attackers mentioned the evils of the film. And, even if it was a terrorist attack, one of the causes or occasions for the attack was the film.

Within a month, more than 50 people had been killed or died in demonstrations, mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of whom had never seen the movie, of course. U.S. and Israeli flags were being burned. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama repeatedly had to address the issue of the film, including at the UN General Assembly.

Perhaps most remarkably, General Martin Dempsey, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had personally telephoned Pastor Terry Jones, the Florida pastor famous for burning the Koran, to plead with him not to promote this rubbishy 30-minute YouTube video. Think about that in terms of the asymmetry of power it reveals. The pen may not be mightier than the sword, but a YouTube video can apparently be mightier than the Fifth Fleet. It's an extraordinary moment.

Meanwhile, Google, who owned YouTube, were themselves confronting a mass of individual requests from individual countries to take the video down. The White House—I love this phrasing—reached out to Google to ask them if they could kindly possibly review whether the film complied with their guidelines. So the headquarters of the public superpower on the East Coast reaches out to the headquarters of the private superpower on the West Coast to ask them if they could possibly review this. Google said, "We have already. We're leaving it up."

Then, all subsequent decisions were taken by Google, not the U.S. government. U.S. flags were being burned, a U.S. ambassador was killed, but the decisions were being made by this private superpower Google.

They actually took it down in many countries where they had a valid legal request. In some places, it was blocked when they didn't take it down, such as Pakistan. Interestingly, in Egypt and Libya, while they did not have a valid legal request, they themselves took it down because they thought the video was directly connected to the violence.

All that because, as we now know, a convicted fraudster in Southern California had posted this ridiculous movie on YouTube.

Welcome to the connected world of my subtitle. This is a world in which tendentially everyone is becoming neighbors with everybody else. Roughly half of humankind now has access to the Internet, and that is going shooting up because of what most of you have in your pocket or handbag, the smartphone. We're in the smartphone world.

But it is important to understand that the connected world is a product of two developments. It's the Internet and mass migration, it's the fact that there are people from everywhere in a city like New York and London, combined with the fact that people everywhere can see what other people are saying everywhere.

If you look at the great free speech cases of our time, like Charlie Hebdo, it is precisely the combination of the virtual and the physical, the local and the global, which makes these cases. A video is posted in Southern California; people die in Pakistan. A death sentence is issued in Al-Raqqa; people are wounded in New York because of a bomb attack because someone has been radicalized on the Internet.

Now, what is characteristic of this world is that it is no longer the state which is the decisive actor in determining your effective freedom of expression in any one place at one time. Think about it even 30 years ago, let alone 50 or 100. What decided your freedom of speech, besides the church, in the past was the state you were in. If you were in the United States, you had the First Amendment; England, you had common law; Germany, German law; China, Chinese law; and so forth. Now that is no longer true to the same extent. I argue in the book that there are actually four forces which determine your effective freedom of speech at any given place and at a given time.

The two most important are the state you are in and the private Internet platforms and media, many of them transnational, that are available to you—what I call the private superpowers, the Googles, the Twitters, the Facebooks, the Amazons, the Apples. The French call them, rather irritably, les GAFA—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, les GAFA.

Thirdly, international organizations' networks and agreements now have a significant impact. Example: the imposition, quite wrongly in my view, by the European Court of Justice on Google of the so-called right to be forgotten—terrible idea, by the way. But as a result of the imposition of the right-to-be-forgotten ruling by the European Court of Justice for the whole European Union, more than half a million links have been taken down from the Google search engines in Europe. That's quite a lot of links.

And finally, there are network-organized citizens.

Let me just dwell a moment on the first two, the most important ones.

First of all, the state you are in. You well remember, in the golden dawn of cyber-libertarian optimism in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton said that for China to try to control the Internet would be like trying to "nail Jell-O to the wall." [Editor's note: President Clinton said this in 2000.] And you know what? The Chinese Communist Party turned around and said, "Bill, just watch us."

I have to tell you that in the last 15 years the Chinese Communist Party has made a pretty good stab at nailing Jell-O to the wall. I describe this at length in my book. A Harvard study of China's Internet censorship suggests, I think plausibly, that this is the largest apparatus of censorship in human history—for a very simple reason: Because of the Internet, there is so much more speech, so much more expression, to be controlled, that if you are going to keep on top of it you have to have an enormous apparatus. And it is extraordinary.

Some of you will know a book of mine called The File about my experience of reading my own Stasi file. Amazingly, this book has been published by a publisher in China, a very enterprising liberal publisher. They organized what we call a live web chat, so you are responding to readers' queries on one of Sina's Chinese platforms in real time. People pose questions, and we could see as we sat at the computer how some of them just disappeared before our eyes. This is being done by an individual censor inside this big Internet platform, Sina Weibo, because every Internet platform in China is obliged to have its own censors in-house.

But still some very interesting questions stayed up, like, for example: "We know the Berlin Wall has come down. When will the great firewall of China come down?" So I give my answer, it's interpreted, the publisher types it in very, very quickly. It goes up there. Sometimes it disappears; sometimes it doesn't. Then the censor rings up my publisher and says, "Please don't ask him the sensitive questions." So the publisher says, "Of course not," puts down the phone, and says, "Go on asking him the sensitive questions."

So in China you see this tremendous struggle that is going on, literally minute by minute, between citizens and activists, like the great Liu Xiaobo, now-imprisoned Nobel Prize winner, who is really fighting for free speech every day, every minute, and this huge censorial apparatus.

But as I say, at the moment the party state is winning. I think there is quite a sobering lesson there, that a powerful, determined authoritarian state can actually effectively nullify, at least for now, all the liberating possibilities of the Internet. Putin's Russia is doing a pretty good job, too.

Turning to the private superpowers, Facebook, as you know, has 1.7 billion regular monthly users. If each user were a resident, it would be the largest country in the world. It is trying to impose a single set of editorial standards, what it leaves up and what it takes down, for the whole of this imagined community—of course, it's not really a community—of 1.7 billion people, sometimes with very negative results.

For example, many of you will know the famous Nick Ut photo of the little Vietnamese girl who has been terribly burned by napalm and is running down a street, an absolutely classic news photo. The other day Facebook, probably with their automated monitoring machinery, took down that photo from the website of a well-known Norwegian writer and suspended his Facebook account. Facebook doesn't like nudity, so they just took it down, and then there was an outcry and they restored it.

That's one we know about. But think about how many other decisions that are being made—editorial, if you will, censorial, decisions—by Google, by Facebook, by Twitter, and others which we don't know about.

So if our effective freedom of speech is so dependent on the private superpowers, I would argue that we need more transparency, more accountability, and actually more appealability against the private superpowers. If a public authority does it—rule of law, democratic state—you know the rules, you know more or less how they are implemented, you have a right of appeal to a court. If Google takes down something about me under the right to be forgotten, there is no clarity about the criteria and no right of appeal.

One of the points I try to make out in the book is I think we ourselves should focus very much on the responsibility of the private superpowers, because what we are getting here is, in effect, a global public sphere, transnational/transcultural public sphere, which is being provided by the private superpowers. So a really important public good is being provided by private means. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but we have to look out for it.

This also affects, by the way, what they do abroad. For me, one of the great free speech questions of our time is: Will Facebook go into China? They would absolutely love to. I've talked to Sheryl Sandberg about this. I could see she'd absolutely love to. It's the biggest unconquered market. Otherwise, Facebook rules the world, but not yet China.

I think it will be disastrous, I think it will be absolutely disastrous, and I'm glad to see they are still holding back. What it would actually provide would be a magnificent free instrument of surveillance for the Chinese Communist Party. Everybody blindly posting their private information, all their networks—I mean it's beyond the Stasi's wildest dream.

In the book, having laid out the shape of this connected world, these four forces that are shaping our effective freedom of speech, I then structure the book: the discussion of cases from around the world; what we should do, what we shouldn't do; what we should limit by law—as little as possible in my view; what we should regulate ourselves in civil society. The right to offend does not mean a duty to offend; the fact that we have a right to say it does not mean it is right to say it. That's the American tradition.

For reasons of time, I'm not going to tell you all 10, you'll be glad to hear, but let me just mention maybe two, to open this up, and then make a couple of final points.

For me, as I've been working on this project—traveling around the world; collecting case studies; collecting examples; talking to people in India, China, the Middle East, Turkey, Russia—what emerges most clearly is the threat of what I call the "assassin's veto," a term I coined by analogy with the famous idea of the heckler's veto. This is, as in the Charlie Hebdo case, people saying, "If you say that, if you publish that, we will kill you," and having such a credible threat that people step back. My formulation on violence is we neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.

What's new in that? Of course, the idea that you ban incitement to violence is there in all the liberal jurisdictions; it's very strongly there in the American tradition. What's new is the added emphasis on "nor accept violent intimidation."

Two sides of the same coin, because I can tell you that in my own continent, Europe, there is a massive chilling effect as a result of the very effective wielding of the assassin's veto by violent Islamists. I want to emphasize it's not just Islamists. It's the Italian Mafia that keeps Roberto Saviano 24/7 under armed guard because they're trying to kill him; sometimes it comes from Sikhs, even from Hindus, in the European multicultural context; but mainly from violent extremist Islamists. It has a massive chilling effect.

So that if we accept, if we yield to, violent intimidation, that of course encourages the men and women of violence to try it again. So it is actually objectively strengthening the incitement to violence. For me, that is the most important limit that we have to defend, not just by law but by social solidarity, because this is as much about social solidarity as about law.

Then I go through all the classic areas: privacy, which we could talk about; official secrecy, the balance on national security; religion, where I have a principle we could talk about, which has Indian MPs (members of parliament) jumping up and down in protest; the media; and so on.

Let me say, before throwing this open, two things, three things perhaps.

Firstly, in addition to the assassin's veto and the heckler's veto, a disease of our time in free countries, particularly in the English-speaking world, is what I call the "I'm offended" veto. It's really quite shocking to see how this is spreading across American universities and has now come to Oxford and other British universities.

This is students saying, "You, student society, have invited Germaine Greer, the radical feminist, to speak. But we are deeply offended—I'm offended—by her views on transgender people, which are unrepeatable in polite society. Therefore, you must disinvite her." It's called, in the beautifully elegant term, "no-platforming"—"you must disinvite her."

Now, this is, quite simply, student-on-student censorship. There's no other word for it. I think universities are the last place in the world where we should have that kind of censorship. Universities are places where young people should be confronted with the widest possible range of views, in, of course, a context of what I call robust civility—under certain conditions, challenge wherever possible.

We had Marine Le Pen to the Oxford Union last year. I can tell you she got a terrific roasting from the students, and it didn't do her reputation any good, even in France. There was a ludicrous movement recently, a few months ago, to ban Donald Trump from the United Kingdom. I said, "On the contrary, we should just invite him to the Oxford Union." [Laughter]

Secondly—and this goes to what we were just talking about, the presidential debate, which I'm sure everybody saw on Monday night—there is a real problem in our media landscapes which, interestingly enough, is not one relating to the limits set by the law. No one could doubt that the United States has free, uncensored, pluralist media and massive commercial competition.

Now, as you all know, the classic First Amendment tradition argument for free speech, the most important single one, is we need free speech for democratic self-government. We have to hear all the evidence, all the arguments, like the ancient Athenians and the Pnyx, and then we make up our own minds, and that's how we govern ourselves.

Now, I want to suggest to you that what we are seeing in many liberal democracies, particularly in the United States, because of the massive profusion of media and because the traditional business model of newspapers has simply collapsed, and therefore everyone is in a frantic commercial competition for survival, and they find that if you have nuanced, well-sourced, moderate, accurate general news reporting or investigative reporting that doesn't sell, that doesn't attract the eyeballs—"if it bleeds it leads" and "if it roars it scores"—and, therefore, all these fiercely competing commercial media are shouting at each other. The characteristic sound of Fox News or MSNBC, which is Fox News, is shouting.

Therefore, what you are seeing is a kind of separating out—we first saw this on the Internet; we are now seeing this, I think, in media altogether—into different echo chambers. So the Trump supporters watch Fox News; they listen to Rush Limbaugh or other talk radio; they get their news on Breitbart or from their Facebook friends—that's also an echo chamber—and they're off there in that echo chamber where—

Donald Trump put this wonderfully in one Tweet after President Obama had released his birth certificate. You know how Trump likes to say "a lot of people think." This Tweet was even better. He said, "A lot of people feel that it's not a proper birth certificate." "A lot of people feel"—that summarizes perfectly this own-reality world of the echo chamber in which it matters more—it's Stephen Colbert come true in a way.

But Clinton supporters, too—it's MSNBC; it's NPR (National Public Radio), which I'm afraid now is increasingly identified just with one side of the debate, even though it aspires to impartiality.

I did a talk about the book on an NPR station in Chicago a few days ago. The host told me a very interesting story. The first time someone called Reagan a war criminal on this NPR station, they got 15 telephone calls protesting. The first time someone called George W. Bush a war criminal, they got three telephone calls, all in support. So they had lost their conservative listeners. It was separating out already into the liberal echo chamber.

The New York Times—it would be interesting to talk about this. I have a very clear impression, which has been confirmed to me by some veteran New York Times journalists, that The New York Times increasingly is an anti-Trump paper. It seems to have taken a conscious decision, not just in the op-eds and the editorials, which is of course classical and absolutely fine in the American journalistic tradition. But if you look at the news coverage, increasingly—a friend who was a longtime New York Times editor pointed this out to me: They use little prejudicial formulations, like "reckless" or "unfounded," even the word "lie," in the news coverage.

Now, we may well argue that this is justified, given the threat many people feel, a lot of people think, Donald Trump poses to American democracy. But nonetheless, it is a departure from the ancient and noble tradition of trying to have genuinely impartial, restrained, scrupulous news coverage—and I bet that doesn't help their Republican readership. So I think even The New York Times—and of course, then it's online social media; it's Facebook friends.

Now, if this is true—and I think there is considerable evidence that it is—that is a real danger for democracy, for deliberative democracy, because what it means is the public square is being eroded.

And actually, what we saw on Monday night, which was great in a way, was one of the rare moments when we see the two of them together actually debating each other and being challenged.

Fortunately, in Britain we still have the BBC.

And by the way, it goes so far that there is some significant polling evidence now that shows that it's no longer "the economy, stupid" because, over the last 10 years, increasingly Republicans and Democrats in the polling are seeing different economies. If there is a Republican administration, the economy is doing well under the Republicans, badly for the Democrats, and vice versa. So that even that effect is beginning to be eroded by this media polarization.

Anyway, that is something I think it would be interesting to talk about here; and how one combats that, which is a very difficult question.

Finally, I won't go into this in any detail—but this is the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, so let me just put on the table and then we can talk about it in the discussion—what we in the West, and particularly the United States, might do for the promotion of free speech in the wider world, which is one of the objectives of my project.

I have to tell you we're not winning anymore, to coin a phrase, in the global information war. There are a lot of people who get their news from Russia today, RT's news channel, and particularly website, a lot of people who don't even know it's a Russian state channel; they just think it's RT. What RT practices is precisely this new kind of journalism, which is "don't bother us with the facts; what matters is the narrative, and the narrative triumphs over the facts."

China: CCTV (China Central Television) is still quite crude, but they are buying their way into the media landscapes, particularly of Africa and Latin America, so massively and so effectively that, again, I think they are winning, at least in those two media markets.

Even in Europe—and with this I close, and it comes back to my initial story—increasingly the magnetism, the attraction, of the American model of free speech—the First Amendment tradition, the beacon, "the city upon a hill"—is fading. What's interesting is that that fading, that growth in criticism, has almost nothing to do with U.S. government policy, except in the case of the Snowden revelations. Mainly it's about the private superpowers, it's about les GAFA.

The Viennese student Max Schrems, who has been fighting Facebook for years on issues of privacy, has a website with a very remarkable name. It's called Think of that, Europe-v-Facebook—Europe, with its high value of privacy, and the big bad American giant Facebook, or Google or Twitter.

I think that's highly problematic, but I think one has to confront it. I would like to see people in the United States saying more clearly "privacy is an American value too. It's not just a European value. We don't accept that framing of the question."

So again, in thinking about what the United States can do in the world to promote global free speech, we have to come back and think about what we are doing with the private superpowers.

That's all I wanted to say in introduction. I look forward to the conversation. Please speak freely.


QUESTION: Susan Gitelson. That was outstanding.

Now, another area that I don't think you had a chance to touch upon: aside from assassins and the really dangerous stuff, there's the question of cyber attacks and hacking. It has been so pronounced recently—for example, with the Democratic National Committee and people like Colin Powell. So the question is: If there's a danger of being hacked and of more transparency than people really want, do you think that people will feel safe to express their real views in email or any other way?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: I think that's what's called a leading question, because the answer is implicit in your question.

You know, my formative experience is when the Soviets ruled Eastern Europe—as I say, being spied upon by the Stasi—and so I know very well that if you think someone is listening or watching all the time, you hold your tongue, you curb your tongue, you don't speak your mind.

Privacy and a confidence in privacy are actually, in fact, different levels of privacy or publicity. I say one thing to my wife, another to a group of small friends. I think confidentiality in working contexts is exceptionally valuable.

I think the quality of government is really suffering from the fact that nobody dares to express a controversial or difficult opinion—like "Shall we reverse our policy?" for example—because they know it will be in tomorrow's New York Times, or WikiLeaks, or wherever it may be.

So I think it is not just a balancing act between privacy and free speech. Privacy is actually essential to free speech.

I think that the most general characteristic of the Internet, put at its most simplest, is the Internet makes it spectacularly easier to make things public and spectacularly more difficult to keep things private. That is the character of the Internet.

Now, what do we do about it? Well, I think we need a strong regulatory framework, that's for sure, to protect privacy. But that's not enough. That's not enough against the Russian hackers who were almost certainly behind those cases.

Then we get to some very difficult areas, like encryption. There is no way we are going to have effective cyber-security, and therefore also individual privacy, without encryption. But of course, that's a problem for law enforcement. It's self-evident. It's a genuine balancing question. It's a genuine problem.

I actually think the U.S. administration was quite right when, under Bill Clinton, they took the decision in principle to support encryption. I think that we have to accept that encryption is part of the game.

I also think that we need to have something that starts in junior high, which is education in Internet literacy—how we read what's on the Internet, how you distinguish between what's true and false; but also in Internet privacy, because we actually have to learn ourselves how to do it. Of course, I don't practice what I preach. [Laughter]

JOANNE MYERS: Just as a follow-up, how do you feel then about an Edward Snowden or a Julian Assange?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Funnily enough, we were just talking about it. Rita Hauser had a wonderful point. She said, "Two cheers for Snowden." That is my view.

I actually think, first of all, that there is no doubt that he did us a public service. I have a whole chapter on this in the book. The actual mechanism's oversight in the agencies, in Congress, and others had actually failed—by the way, in Britain too—and, therefore, he did a public service.

And then, I think you have to look at the man or woman and make a judgment about, if this doesn't sound too highfalutin, their moral character.

I think Julian Assange is, if I may put it this way, a complete scumbag. I think he is deeply irresponsible and I judge him differently.

My view of Snowden is different. Everyone who does something like this has an element of ego, of narcissism, that's for sure; but I think fundamentally he was a public-spirited, patriotic guy.

Now, I was brought up as an Anglican with the rule of thumb "hate the sin, love the sinner." I have to say I feel the response to Snowden from many people—and I think there will be people in this room who disagree—in the United States has been the opposite: "love the sin, hate the sinner," right? So "He did us a great public service, it's very good we have this discussion, but he should be locked up under the Espionage Act." That doesn't work for me.

My view is—and again, we were just talking about this—there is now a campaign for him to be pardoned. I don't think that's right because it's a wrong construction. But he did indicate he was open to a plea bargain. I actually think to balance these two things in a reasonable plea bargain would be a reasonable way to go.

QUESTION: Rita Hauser.

I want to come back particularly to this country, to what I will call a standard of decency. There's no absolute unlimited free speech, as we know from Justice Holmes' adage about a fire in a theater.

When do you apply for a publisher, or anyone else, a certain sense that this goes beyond the limit, this is offensive, this will disturb people, and you decide not to print it, not to publish it—not under pressure from anybody, but self-censorship? Is that all gone completely?

You take university. I know at Harvard, when we weigh giving an honorary degree, we discuss that: Is this person going to be the right person for this event? Implicit in that is: Is he going to be someone that huge numbers of people will not accept? I don't know the answer to that. I'm very troubled by that question.

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Yes. I mean, look, next to the privacy point, it is the biggest single worry about this world. I say in the book that the Internet is history's biggest sewer. I mean there is just so much—forgive my language—shit on the Internet. There really is. And there's no doubt there has been a coarsening of public language.

I argue that we should aspire to a normal what I call robust civility. It's not the vicar having tea with the bishop. It's robust, we get the views out there, but in a context of robust civility, which is what we all grew up with and what we practice at Oxford or Harvard or in Parliament or Congress.

Now, I don't think we should go at it with the law and regulation, because actually I think law, and even regulation, has its work cut out going after what I call dangerous speech, which is a subcategory of hate speech which significantly increases the probability of violence. There's so much of that online, I think that's what the law has to concentrate on.

I think we have to have counter-speech, the classic American answer, and I think we have to have consumer pressure. We actually have to push back. I know you're going to say, "Good luck with that." But we actually have to push back and say, "We don't want that kind of crudity and abusive conduct. We actually have some standards of robust civility which we ourselves observe."

This goes to the media landscape point, because in Britain, because we have this really superb public service broadcaster which preserves the public square, it preserves some standards of robust civility which actually emanate, as it were, and set the tone for the public debate.

So I come back to my question about the media landscape in the United States. Who is going to ensure that robust civility is preserved in the United States? I wish I had an answer.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim. Thank you.

When you speak about robust civility, you raise the question—and the Internet has contributed greatly to this—about the lack of public space where there is an involvement of what, again, Justice Holmes called "the Constitution is made for people of fundamentally different views."

I am a devoted subscriber to both The New York Times and the New York Post. I suspect not too many people here share that enthusiasm for both of those publications. But what the Internet has done, it seems to me, is to create separate communities of likeminded people who never bother to talk to each other. When I go to my favorite website, RealClearPolitics, I can find six or seven articles about how Trump won the debate. I think that's kind of hard to objectively say. Even on Fox News you don't hear much of that.

So could you comment on how the Internet has sort of Balkanized what you call public space?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: That's what I was trying to say with the echo chambers. There's a rather pretentious word for this. It's called homophily—i.e., sticking with the people you agree with. It is clearly a very strong trend.

But some people say, "Oh, but it was always like that. Some people read The New York Times and other people read The Wall Street Journal." I actually am re-reading George Eliot's Middlemarch, that wonderful novel. I came across—you remember the character called Will Ladislaw? There were two papers in that time. He said, "The people who read The Pioneer don't read The Trumpet and the people who read The Trumpet don't read The Pioneer." So, in a sense, that has always been true.

But I think the almost complete separation out—because, after all, the people in Middlemarch talk to each other—and the sheer quality of repetition—we all know that the big lie, if it prevails, prevails through sheer repetition. If you say it once, it isn't true; if you say it 10,000 times, then it becomes true. Now, this just bombarding repetition of the big lie.

So what do we do about it? A couple of quick suggestions.

First of all, one encouraging development is the growth of fact-checking. Fact-checking is a growth industry. If I had someone coming out of Oxford or Stanford, I might encourage them to become a fact-checker because I think it's going to be a great career. I think a good thing about this election campaign has been the extent to which fact-checking has become an established part of the debate.

I think, given the business model problem, foundation-funded serious news and investigative reporting is essential. Actually, I think if we are going to have a concrete conversation about what we do about it, all of us, I think that would be an interesting place to look. It is pretty clear that the business model is not going to do it.

The Guardian, for example, for which I write, has more than 40 million monthly users online, it has a fantastic reach, and it's losing a ton of money every year. The hope was on s'engage et puis on voit [Editor's note: first you engage in battle and then you see what happens—attributed to Napoleon], that eventually we would somehow find out how you make money online. We were just beginning to do that—and then Facebook came along, and Facebook is now eating The Guardian's lunch. The online advertising has gone across to Facebook. People are using Facebook News Feed.

So the market in itself—it is, as it were, if I can put it this way, a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. Therefore, I think the foundation model is something we should really look at seriously and give a lot more attention to.

QUESTION: Could you address the materiality of the propaganda bots on the volume in the echo chamber?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Substantial. Both Russia and China, as you know very well, are doing this on an industrial scale. Government officials—or, indeed, international officials—can say this until they are blue in the face. I don't think it will make a blind bit of difference.

The people who could get at it are the engineers in Mountain View [i.e. Google and other high-tech companies]. So this is another very interesting question. Reluctant as we are to regulate private actors in matters related to speech, for very good reasons, I actually think we need a very serious conversation, because they are the guys who can stop it, and they do do it proactively on other things; we know that they actually tweak it and actively go after certain things. So I think that would be a very good conversation to be had. But I'm afraid, I think very much, ultimately the decision still has to be made by them.

QUESTION: Good morning. I'm Michael Harrington. I actually work oftentimes, I think, on the other side of this debate, where I often wonder if I'm the bogeyman. I work for the Air Force. We say media, but it's much more public relations (PR) management.

By way of recent example, I'm sure many are familiar with Ryan Lochte and the Olympics fiasco, as to whether he did or did not drunkenly do something to a Brazilian gas station. I frankly admired his interview with Matt Lauer because he was openly and unabashedly an idiot, and you could tell, quite frankly, that he didn't have much formal media training. Now, you could argue all day as to whether he should have.

But oftentimes the folks that I work with, who are very high-level Air Force and Department of Defense officials, are not so much paranoid as are their handlers, much lower-ranking people, like myself, who, frankly, are logarithmic scales below them on any sort of power structure, whether in the corporate or the military rank world. They're so worried about getting asked a difficult question, a hard-to-answer question. I often say—and this isn't popular within the company—"Well, why are you worried about it? It's not like you'd answer it anyway."

All that to lead to the question as to—within the military, within the government, we don't have, technically speaking, that profit motive, and we do at least have some mechanism of civil control by Freedom of Information Act requests. There is at least some way to get at us if you think that we're not telling the full truth.

But oftentimes—and I worked as an editor for the equivalent of a small newspaper in Alaska, and folks on base and in the community knew that we were selling them a narrative, we were doing the RT. So, I guess, how do you compete? What can you offer people if there is not really interest in—and I mentioned Lochte—the Brazilian side of it? They didn't have to explain their story. Because that's complicated. How do you explain that? Well, they kind of gave the truth as to what had happened there and they had a vested interest in him looking silly.

The same with the military. If I can't compete with cats and bombs and people dying in Chicago, what can I offer that interests people? The problem we run into is you have your colonels, your generals, saying, "Why don't people care about what we're selling?" I say, "Because you're selling them something, and you're not selling them something particularly interesting."

So how do you compete with this infinite variety of distractions, and how do you make intelligent debate profitable?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Yes. Well, indeed.

Far be it from me to advise the U.S. Air Force.

Look, it's a real problem. You see it in politics and government PR altogether. It's all about the sound bite now. You've got 20 seconds to make the point. It's all PR techniques. And it's self-reinforcing—because that's what you're offering, that's what the media want; therefore, that's what you're offering more of, and so on and so forth. As I said, you must not underestimate the sheer element of commercial competition for eyeballs, and those eyeballs will disappear very, very, quickly.

So I think it's tough. I have to say—and I don't have any easy ready answers—but one thing I would say is there is an area of journalism which is still very healthy both in print and online, and that is long-form magazine journalism. Interestingly, this now works well online. You have Slate, you have BuzzFeed, and news sites like VICE—long, serious reporting and investigative journalism, often foundation-funded.

I think you are not going to get the 8:00 am ESPN viewer to engage seriously with the Air Force's latest strategic plan for the Far East. But I think if you were consciously offering significant serious access to people who are doing those long-form pieces, that is a way of reaching a serious part of the public.

QUESTION: Thank you for so much food for thought. My name is Rui Tavares. I'm a historian of censorship in the Enlightenment, but I was also a member of the European Parliament and was the rapporteur for fundamental rights in Hungary. So I am coming at this from both sides.

I would like to make an optimistic and a pessimistic point. The optimistic one is that, as you said in the beginning, we are kind of arriving at the Enlightenment dream of a cosmopolitan public sphere, but in a very haphazard way. So most of our discussions, or many of our discussions, are transnational discussions. They cross along many lines—religion, language, ideology—and that would seem to warrant a role for transnational organizations to try to right wrongs at least and, even if at a distance, try to regulate a little bit that cosmopolitan public sphere. So this is the optimistic point.

But because we are arriving at this cosmopolis by stumbling into it, in a sense, my second point would be about sincerity. When I was working on the report on Hungary, one thing that was very striking was that an authoritarian will always look like a democrat if he really wants to. The European Commission will come up with indicators to respect of rule of law or respect of pluralism, and Mr. Orbán will immediately produce his counter-indicators that prove that he was formally completely in the right.

I was working with lots of jurists. In the end, I thought that looking at this from an art historian's perspective was better, because everything in the painting was okay, less the sincerity of the original painting. It was a fakery.

The problem is our liberal democracies, equipped with something that Enlightenment philosophers had, which is belief in their principles, belief as to their values, in order to respond to the kind of playing with the rules of liberal democracy to destroy liberal democracy, playing with the rules of journalism to destroy the value of journalism, that all other actors, from trolls to authoritarians, are engaging in.

You cannot anymore count yourself as just a neutral actor if you are a liberal democracy and hope that neutrality will provide for a level playing field. The other side is not interested in a neutral, level playing field.

The question is: Is it possible for democracies to believe in themselves? Is there still time for them to act? Assuming their subjectivity, that they are defending values, will this be credible at this time of the day and will this work?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: In one word, yes. And then, a couple more words.

First of all, I take it that what we in the West, the wider West, should be trying to do over the next 10 to 15 years is to integrate the emerging and rising powers—the Chinas, the Brazils, the Indias—into the liberal international order that we have built. If we are going to do that, we have to respect the rules of the liberal international order ourselves.

So I would like to see the United States, if I may say so—I mean, for example, just to give you a tiny example, it is absolutely shocking what China is doing, building islands in the South China Sea, clearly in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as the court has just found. But it would help if the United States itself were party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the name of which it is criticizing China. I would like to see the United States slightly more following the logic of the liberal international order which it, more than any other country, has built.

Secondly, though, in a sense in contradiction to that, as many of you know, I spent a lot of my life first involved in the Cold War and then writing history of the Cold War. I have absolutely no doubt that by far the most important thing we in the West did to win the Cold War was not anything in our external policy; it was keeping our own societies strong, prosperous, open, free, and attractive. Now, that was so powerful because people could see us. People traveled. People came to study. They listened to Radio Free Europe. East Germans watched West German television.

Now, think how much more true that is today, when everything that is done in the United States is visible in the connected world to hundreds of millions of other people. That's what the meaning of cosmopolis is. You are living in the world's largest fish bowl. Therefore, in my view, some of the most important things that the United States can do are not in its external policy, but in preserving and enhancing its own tradition of free speech at home.

For example, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) ruling on net neutrality, I think that was extremely important, because that's leading by example. I think how you deal with Snowden and the balance between national security and free speech—if you get the balance wrong, every dictator around the world will be saying, "We're just doing what they're doing." The coarsening of public language—the whole world was watching that debate on Monday evening—robust civility, which when I started traveling to the United States was really still there, very much so, in Congress too. The question of the media landscape.

All these things are actually in my view both the most important and the most easily doable for the United States. So, please, let's do some renovation on the "city upon a hill."

JOANNE MYERS: Time present, time past, you are perfection. Thank you so much.

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