“And Who Are the Judges?”

Mesrop Harutyunyan

Writer by calling

The famous question from Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboyedov comes to mind every time I encounter information, appeals, demands and even actions taken towards controlling Internet content.

Last week, such information reached me from Germany. Apparently, according to one source, in Germany, a social media network can be fined for not responding to hate speech content within 24 hours after it was reported.

According to the second source, Facebook is introducing a system to combat false news in Germany. “It will be much easier for German users to report this or that news story if, in their opinion, it is not true. Facebook also announced that an outside company will be hired to check the news. If found to be unreliable, the news stories will be marked as disputed.”

Immediately, some questions arise:

a) What is false information? If someone calls certain information false, is that information false? If that was true, 90% (if not more) of world media and particularly information on political figures would be regarded as false, since these people tend to deny information about them despite media companies’ evidence.”

It is important to remember that there is a difference between false and unverified information and that unverified does not mean false. Moreover, in case of dispute, only a court can decide whether the information is false, defamatory or offensive. Now, in case of a complaint, it is Facebook that will verify information and mark it as disputed. In other words, Facebook takes the role of a judge.

b) We know well what controlling media content (print, broadcast or online), under this or that pretext (in this case, hate speech), can result to. I don’t need to remind you about the Soviet censorship, when a structure called “Glavlit”, under the guise of protecting state secrets, could censor any publication that did not fit the party line. Today, Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal agency that has a right to block any website (for incitement of discrimination, hatred or violence), carries out the functions of Soviet “Glavlit” on the Internet. 

Anything that Roskomnadzor does not like, can be forced under a restriction of some sort and blocked.

A reader might ask: “Why does it matter what they do in Germany?”

Let me answer that question. The bill on Fake Accounts, discussed in the Parliament in the spring of 2014, immediately comes to mind. Fortunately, it was withdrawn from the discussion after much criticism from us and our colleagues. Here too, it was proposed to remove unwanted content without a court or a jury; if someone simply considered your post offensive or defamatory, they could demand to remove it.

And when anywhere in the world, an initiative to control Internet content comes to fruition, we fear that something even worse will be implemented here in Armenia. 

This, when the European Court of Human Rights made a final judgment in the case of Delfi, deciding on the liability of an online news portal for the offensive comments posted by its readers, immediately the authors of the bill on Fake Accounts raised their voices ( “Aha, did you see that?”), without learning about the details of the case. Again, fortunately, they did not bring that dusty bill back into the Parliament. 

I fear they will raise their voice in this case too. And if in Germany only hates speech is considered unwanted content, here they can consider “unwanted content” anything they want from an innocent news piece on a politician to a sharp cartoon. And they will have content removed without a court or a jury.

Because they are the judges, after all.

Mesrop Harutyunyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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