The Global Struggle between Free Speech and Incitement

New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Peter Baker recently observed:  “Facebook has become the battleground in a global struggle between free speech and incitement, and in few places is that more pronounced than in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.”   Tragically, I have found myself on the frontline of this battle.

In October 2015, my father, Richard Lakin, a retired elementary school principal and lifelong peace activist, was brutally murdered by Palestinian terrorists on a public bus in Jerusalem.  Shortly after the horrific attack, I published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Facebook Intifada” which outlined how social media companies have become the key facilitators of incitement to terror.   Hundreds of radical Islamic organizations and thousands of terrorist leaders use social media platforms to incite, motivate, radicalize and instruct Muslim youth around the world, encouraging them to join in this ecosystem of hatred that I call Open Source Jihad.  Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others social media giants have become accomplices in this Open Source Jihad; allowing terrorist organizations, known terrorists and radicalized youth to operate freely for years.

Over the past year, I have met with world leaders, technology titans, constitutional law professors, national security experts and others in an effort to raise awareness to the issue of online incitement to terror.  We have filed lawsuits, initiated legislation, participated workshops and legal symposiums and briefed journalists; all in an effort to persuade the social media moguls to adopt a zero tolerance policy towards incitement to terror; an approach they long ago adopted towards pornography.  In fact, Facebook was so effective in its efforts to remove pornography that the roles were momentarily reversed when the company was rightly accused by the Prime Minister of Norway of exercising excessive censorship in removing the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken during the Vietnam War of children fleeing in terror from a napalm strike — including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, who was naked.

I have no doubt that social media companies will eventually adopt a zero tolerance policy towards incitement to terror.  As public, legal and legislative pressures continue to increase, they will have no choice but to comply. It is simply the right thing to do.

The key question evolving in this debate is:  Where do we draw the line between free speech and incitement to terror (of course, this debate will also be relevant for dealing with hate speech, shaming, and other forms of cyberbullying .)  Many in Silicon Valley argue that freedom of expression on the Internet should be absolute. In modern day America, the constitutional right to freedom of expression has achieved a quasi-religious stature, espoused by liberal progressives and alt-righters as one.  A core tenet of this religion is the slippery slope paradigm.  A belief that if we curtail freedom of speech in even the most trivial way, western society will immediately morph in a totalitarian dictatorship, worse than any science fiction movie we can imagine.

The world has evolved over the past few hundred years, with technology progressing at an exponential pace.  Just as the Internet and mobile connectivity have profoundly affected the way that we think about commerce and friendship, they should also be affecting way we think about our basic inalienable rights.  We have not stopped shopping or making friends in the connected world, we just do it differently.  We certainly should not abandon the core values in which our modern lives are grounded: freedom, liberty, equality, democracy and social justice, but we do need to rethink how we protect them in a connected world.

The time has come to turn the question of freedom of speech on its head.  We need to place less emphasis on how we protect expression, and more focus on how we protect the public.

Hundreds of years ago, when the fundamental concept of freedom of expression began to evolve, it was still possible to have absolute control over public speech.   If the king did not like what someone said from their soapbox or pulpit – he beheaded them.  If he did not like what came out of a printing press or publisher; he shut them down, and perhaps beheaded the owner for good measure too.  In the Soviet Union and other communist countries and dictatorships, leadership controlled the media and all basic communication tools in order to monitor their citizens and ensure absolute allegiance to the regime.

The Internet, mobile connectively and social media have changed all that.  Today there are almost no limitations on how information and ideas spread. You can say, print and publish just about anything that you want and share it with millions of people instantaneously.  Governments are hardly involved and social media companies don’t really care; they actually encourage it; fake news, hate speech, incitement to terror, all generate significant traffic which translates into profit; big profits for Facebook et al.

Absolute freedom of speech is no longer strengthening democracy and protecting the public. Today, the opposite is taking place. Unbridled freedom to express hatred is facilitating the spread of Open Source Jihad, polarizing the Western world, and perhaps setting the stage for an actual holy war with the proportions of a Holocaust.

The time has come to turn our thinking about freedom of speech on its head. We need to abandon the slippery slope paradigm, and focus on the dangers inherent in the fact that any angry young man can spread poison virally to billions of people.

About the Author
Micah Lakin Avni is the founder and CEO of Peninsula Group, a publicly-traded Israeli commercial finance institution. He also serves as the chairman of the Israel Association of Credit Companies. After his father, Richard Lakin, was brutally murdered by terrorists in October 2015, Micah began working tirelessly to rid social media of incitement to terror. Micah serves in a volunteer capacity as the chairman of "Concert – Together for Israel" (previously known as “Kela Shlomo”), a long-term partnership between the State of Israel and the global pro-Israel leadership to facilitate ongoing strategic cooperation, counter the global Israel delegitimization movement and improve Israel's positive image and standing in world public opinion. Micah lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and four children.