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Free Speech Online in a Global Setting: Censorship and the Challenge of Private Control

October 22, 2020 |  5:00 - 6:00 pm  |  Zoom Webinar

On October 22, 2020, Evelyn Douek, lecturer on law and SJD candidate at Harvard Law School, David Kaye, clinical professor of law and Director of the International Justice Clinic at the University of California, Irvine, joined Strauss Center Director Bobby Chesney for a virtual talk on “Free Speech Online in a Global Setting: Censorship and the Challenge of Private Control.”

Professor Chesney began by noting that the public square has given way to social media platforms, generating new benefits and risks. These new risks, he noted, include disinformation and censorship. To that, Chesney posed the fundamental question of this conversation: “Are we doomed?” Douek responded that the status of free speech online is certainly a mixed bag, noting that we are in what you could label the “adolescence phase” of online governance. Kaye agreed that there is indeed a real sense of doom in the near-term, given that there are real threats to democracy and real manipulation occurring online. He noted that he nonetheless believes we are heading to a place where meaningful public conversations on these issues will take place. The panelists also discussed the “very real lack of trust” developing towards information systems, which is a serious threat from a democratic perspective. They further discussed the complexity of addressing issues in the digital sphere as the policy options for certain issues overlap, so a certain policy response to mitigate a threat might affect our ability to address others.

Douek and Kaye also did a deep dive on Facebook’s content moderation policy, discussing the recently launched Facebook Oversight Board, which the panelists agreed was a step in the right direction—though further information is needed as to how decisions regarding the removal of content are made (and on what basis). They also discussed the general trend of the deterioration of trust in our public institutions, which—as illustrated by the present pandemic—can be a life or death problem. Thus, they argued, in order to educate ourselves and make our institutions more resilient, we need to build out this conversation to include not just platforms but all spheres of public life.


Evelyn Douek (Harvard University) is an expert on global regulation of online speech, private content moderation institutional design and comparative free speech law and theory. She co-hosts Lawfare’s Arbiters of Truth podcast series (exploring online speech in the run-up to the 2020 US election), and her research has appeared or is forthcoming in the Columbia Law Review, the University of Chicago Law Review OnlineThe Atlantic, and Slate, among other publications.

David Kaye (University of California-Irvine) recently completed a six-year term as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. He is the author of Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet (2019). His reporting for the UN addressed, among other things, encryption and anonymity, the protection of whistleblowers and journalistic sources, the regulation of online content by social media and search companies, Artificial Intelligence technologies and human rights, the private surveillance industry, and online hate

Bobby Chesney (moderator) is the director of UT’s Strauss Center for International Security and Law, as well as the James A. Baker III Chair and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas School of Law.

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