Stifling debate

The days when people sat around over a kitchen table and debated the whys and wherefores of life and living are few and far between. The afternoons where world politics were parsed and analysed over a cup of coffee are equally rare. And the evenings down the pub where the state of various nations was contemplated and expounded are all but a thing of the past.

Pushed as we are to cram everything we have to do into the same 24 hours we’ve always had, our debates are more likely to take place on social media sites like Facebook than in a face-to-face conversation. Or perhaps we might add our opinion as a comment to an article published online rather than pick up the phone to talk to someone about it. Indeed, it is often while trolling through the comments section that I come to grips with an issue, seeing both sides (and more) to a particular debate. That said, it’s also a playground for many facile idiots whose contributions almost inevitably degenerate into personal attacks on another commenter. But still we can take or leave other people’s opinions.

Last week in Hungary, the ‘Constitutional Court ruled that the content provider of any website can be held responsible for comments infringing other persons’ rights even if it was not aware of the infringing content, regardless whether the objected content was removed immediately at the requests of the aggrieved party.’ I had heard rumblings that the Internet was going to be the next focus of attention (the theatre having been dealt with already) and when I heard about this over lunch today I was shocked (yes, I’m still flying the discursive lunch flag where myriad subjects are touched upon and are invariably followed up by an email with links to the topics tabled for further debate).

I’ve been sitting on the moderation fence for a while now and have yet to come down on one side or the other. I like the idea of free comments and the debate they spark and yet I hate to see forums being hijacked by narrow-minded bigoted tirades that serve little other purpose than to showcase the commenter’s attempts at self-aggrandisement. And when these comments are patently untrue and misleading and could, in some instances, do damage, then I’m all for moderation.

But I don’t for a minute think that it’s economically feasible for Internet service providers to moderate EVERYTHING that’s put on the Internet. And occasionally we hear of petitions to have objected content removed. Fair enough. But to be held responsible for content posted by others even if that content was subsequently removed – that’s bordering on inane, no? Can I really be my brother’s keeper?

The right to express ourselves, no matter how unpopular our opinion, is one we take for granted. The debates that rage over the Internet give voice to many opinions that would otherwise go unheard. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU or TASZ) said ‘the decision of the Constitutional Court will have a disproportionately large deterring effect on online public debates that are still lively today’ and I thought that a little far-fetched. Until, that is, I heard Dunja Mijatovic, Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Co-operation explain why: by placing ‘unconditional responsibility on content providers for all comments posted on their websites by third parties will make it very likely that they will limit or block any possibility of online comments’. And if comments are limited or blocked, then online conversation becomes one-way – pretty much like talking to yourself. Where’s the learning in that?

First published in the Budapest Times  6 June 2014

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