In everyday language, free speech means that you have the ability to say whatever you what with the understanding that you can face legal punishment if what you say violates the rights of others: for example through libel, copyright infringement, etc.
Different countries have different limits on the freedom of expression. I know of no place where it is absolute. Perjury, for example, is universally frowned upon.
Free speech exists so that the state cannot silence its critics, who are free to scrutinize the powers that be and criticize them with the the goal of keeping those who exercise power on the straight and narrow, thus assuring the rights of the rest of us.
Another right that is equally important to the freedom of expression is the right to privacy. Like freedom of expression, the right to privacy exists to ensure a balance of power between the state and the individual. If there is a reasonable suspicion that you are engaging in something criminal, a court can give the police the authority to monitor your behaviour and communications.
In the old days, that meant that they could ransack your home, open your mail and tap your telephone. But today it means that they can set up nearly invisible microphones and cameras, listen in on all the phones you are likely to call, instal spyware on your computer or phone, read your emails and monitor your internet traffic.
Today, the police don’t even have to go to much effort to get access to your private life, as you have most likely voluntarily subjected yourself to constant surveillance from the likes of Google, Facebook and others. You live surrounded by sensors and all of your electronic communication is automatically tapped and collected in huge databases that police can access with a court order.
But for some politicians, who would hate to see a useful crisis go to waste, the already vast abilities of the police to do their jobs is not enough. The chorus is singing for more. After all, no one wants to appear “soft on terror”.
In the rush to defend free speech, politicians are further dismantling the right to privacy. The problem however is that free speech and privacy are not “values” that should be defended, but rather tools (or weapons, if you will) to ensure a balance of power between the individual and the state. And they are related.
Without the strong protection of privacy, freedom of expression is nearly useless. Or to put it another way: a restriction on privacy is in itself a restriction on free speech. Privacy is the foundation, free speech is the structure.
Statements don’t arise out of nowhere within an individual’s thoughts and then fly directly out into the public sphere to fascinate, infuriate or speak truth to power. They are absorbed and shaped in the peace of library halls and the corners of the internet, they are studied in private conversations, tested through back channels and often (although not always in politics) destroyed due to a lack of logic, evidence or relevance.
The freedom to speak and think in peace is what allows free expression to be used effectively as it is intended: to confront state power verbally so that it doesn’t trample upon those rights that we as citizens have fought so hard for over the past century and a half – e.g. women’s suffrage, the right to unemployment benefits, etc.
The insistence of politicians to sacrifice citizens’ privacy upon the flames of free speech is a far bigger threat than any militant Islamist who finds a cartoon offensive. It is a stab in the back of free speech. I do not doubt that their basic intentions are good: they want to protect the public. But the road to hell is, as we all know, paved by naive fools with good intentions.
Henrik Chulu is the co-founder of Bitbureauet, an independent internet think-tank. This column was originally published in Danish at frikultur.dk and has been translated and republished under the Creative Commons Attribution license.