In defense of free speech – An open letter to the OBA

Recently the Minister of Home Affairs, Senator Michael Fahy, made the following comments concerning online commentating:

“It’s only a select few fanning the flames of negativity, but it only takes one or two individuals for the comments to eventually snowball into something that translates into Bermudians being perceived as anti-foreigner,” he said.

“Some of the comments I’ve heard and seen have been completely unacceptable, and regrettably we don’t have suitable mechanisms in place to properly police some of these anonymous rants.”

Now, to be clear, I do agree that the xenophobic comments that one does indeed encounter on some online sites, be they blogs, forums, or traditional news media with online comment options, are something that should be criticised, and that it is unfortunate that they exist.

Whether or not they damage our island financially (directly or indirectly), they display a social problem and undercurrent in our society that should be criticised and challenged.  There is always the chance that this ideology of hate may form the foundation for physical actions of hate – be they graffiti or acts of violence.

My concern however is with the latter part of the Minister’s comments, concerning policing the internet.

These comments are something that should rightly disturb all online commentators and advocates of free speech.

What does Mr Fahy mean by ‘policing the internet’?

Is the OBA developing mechanisms to restrict free speech online? If so, what are these mechanisms?

What regulations and policies are they implying with this comment?

While blogs should indeed be responsible in moderating comments, and there are mechanisms for reporting offensive comments (especially on the news outlets), the best way to challenge these offensive comments is through tackling the ideology of hate they represent, and tackling the social tensions in our society which give momentum for these hateful and xenophobic comments.

One of the first steps that the State could take to reduce xenophobia in Bermuda is instituting a living minimum wage and cracking down on employers and landlords who are exploiting foreign workers.

I ask that the OBA Government clarify the comments of their Minister of Home Affairs concerning policing the internet.

Alternatively, I ask that they retract their comments on this matter and issue an apology.

If the OBA does not intend to ‘police the internet’ then they need to clarify the statement by Mr Fahy.

4 thoughts on “In defense of free speech – An open letter to the OBA

  1. I think perhaps you are reading a little too much into his comment. When I read “…we don’t have suitable mechanisms in place to properly police some of these anonymous rants.” I read a “we” that refers to society on the whole – not the OBA government. And let’s face it – the Royal Gazette has posed the very same questions to us through polls and editorials about whether in the age of the internet some sort of rules should be put in place – such as posters having to use their real name.

    There is freedom of speech but should there be freedom of anonymous speech? if you slander me I have the right to take you to court to clear my name – however my right is negated by unbridled anonymous speech.

    Shouldn’t everyone’s rights be equal?

    Besides the plain truth of it is this – prior to the internet most letters written anonymously to the editor – no matter how misguided – generally wouldn’t (or were not allowed to) slander anyone who was not a public figure.

    Now that we can instantly (and continuously) anonymously slander one and all online. We have all noticed the awful, basest level of insults that fly back and forth on any article. Personally I believe no personal postings on the gazette should be anonymous. If you want to be anonymous then take the time to write a letter.

  2. I can understand your point, and I do think Mr Fahy was generally just deploring xenophobia in general, and the fact that there are some who post such comments online.

    However, rather than addressing how to tackle xenophobia, he went off about policing the internet. Even if he really has no intention of policing the internet, the fact that he phrased it should set off alarm bells.

    If a PLP Minister had said what Mr Fahy said, I’m pretty sure that there would have been uproar about threats to freedom of speech. His comments are very similar to those uttered by more authoritarian regimes, such as China, Belarus and North Korea. That he has such thoughts would seem to betray a rather authoritarian streak, which I find concerning, and feel it is important to challenge it.

    A regular ‘citizen’ floating this idea is one thing.

    A Government Senator and a Minister of Home Affairs floating this idea is something quite different, and something that should be treated as a serious threat to free speech.


    On anonymous speech itself, I much prefer people to have the courage of their convictions and not hide behind false names. While there are times when false names are necessary – and can allow for the expansion of free speech – it can also lead to a ‘Lord of the Flies’ phenomenon where people feel empowered to engage in anti-social behaviours which they would not do otherwise.

    I generally allow posters to use false names provided they do not cross certain lines. When those lines are crossed, I either delete the comment, or (more often) delete the offending part of the post, and make a note in the post indicating my edits.

    I have some ‘ghost moderators’ who I consult on comments which I’m not sure about.

    I believe that online sites that allow comments should monitor and moderate, and make clear their moderation policies. For formal media (as opposed to blogs like this) they need to be held more accountable, I agree, and they should have a mechanism for people to complain or report offensive comments.

    I have exercised my right to report offensive comments on the RG and Bernews sites from time to time, and have found the moderators to be quite good at responding to such reports. RG tends to be more reactive though, while Bernews seems more proactive.

  3. The problem with using your real name on the internet is that comments can take years to disappear, if ever. Write a letter to the newspaper and it will be remembered only as long as the issue is topical. Post a comment online and people can search for it forever.

    I don’t necessarily want people to be able to easily look up what I say ten years later.

  4. “The problem with using your real name on the internet is that comments can take years to disappear, if ever. ”

    That’s actually why I always use my real name. It forces me to critically think about what I’m saying and hopefully teaches me to avoid making stupid comments that I’ll regret later.

    That and the more you flood the internet with volume of material, the tougher it becomes to find the handful of stupid remarks you may have made.

    As for the minister’s remarks, I’m with Jonathan, he should come out and clarify exactly what he meant just so that he isn’t misinterpreted.

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