There are some attacks on freedom of speech that are not coming now from political or religious institutions but from a new and eminently dangerous power which has not yet bared its teeth. I will tell you about the case of Professor Félix Ovejero, a lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Barcelona.
Ovejero is a well-known theorist, a specialist in the difficulties of getting secessionism to accept democratic rules of play. His latest book is titled, precisely, Secesionismo y democracia [Secessionism and Democracy]. He is also well-known for being the one who put the sharpest critique of current left-wing formations into circulation in his book La deriva reaccionaria de la izquierda [The Reactionary Drift of the Left]. His articles and essays are not aimed at the general reader but are analytical in nature. That is why, despite being a clear voice of the enlightenend left, he is attacked very violently by leftists and their nationalist allies.
Well, at the end of April Professor Ovejero found that Facebook had closed his account. For one week on his screen a window appeared which stated the following:
«If we continue to consider that your publications or comments do not comply with our community standards, your account will remain deactivated. Our objective is to guarantee the safety of persons on Facebook, for which reason you will not be able to use Facebook while we review your publications and comments».
It is a language reminiscent of Orwell. At no time did they say which publications or comments they were referring to. For the rest, it was not a temporary block, which is what usually happens when a suspicion arises , until the misuse of messages is confirmed. It was a pure and simple erasure.
This is a very rare and exceptional case. It is also what happened to Trump for example, on Twitter. Many people were pleased with that cancellation, but they did not see (we did not see) that at any time the company could decide to close anything down that it found annoying.
When they closed his account suddenly and without giving him the chance to salvage content, Ovejero, among other damages inflicted, lost documents, letters, photographs, academic articles and publications that were in the account. And also his five thousand contacts.
But it was all very suspicious. In order to close an account down you either need thousands of complaints which in general can only be produced by organized groups or bots, or the initiative must be taken by a watchdog from within the publication control centre. It may be pertinent to recall that the headquarters of this centre is in Barcelona.
The official reasons for closing down an account are, above all, using a profile for business purposes, publishing offensive or insulting content, transmitting pornography, using a false profile for a non-existent person, usurpation of a real person, failure to respect intellectual property, in short, a series of rather rational motives, none of which fit any of the posts in Ovejero’s account.
The incredible thing is that the formal complaints are anonymous and there is no way to defend oneself from them. Professor Ovejero tried to contact someone who would reply or who would give him explanations about the closure of his account, but time and time again he came up against a brick wall. He felt more defenseless than he did during the era of Franco censorship.
This attack on free speech is very serious. We are talking about a private enterprise that decides what we can say and what we must not say. Imagine if the telephone company cut off our phone when we said something that the executive officers did not care for,
Nonetheless, the decisive question is just that, which executive officer? The censorship is so scandalous that some network experts have told Professor Ovejero that it looks like it was a malfunction in the system. The worrying thing about this is that, even if it were true, it isn’t possible for the user to find any way into Facebook in order to set the system right. With these difficulties in place, it is no wonder that hypotheses proliferate about an attack on the part of organised political groups on the social networking sites. Or, more directly, on the part of somebody in charge at the headquarters in Barcelona, a city dominated by secessionists in all the structurally important posts.
A good part of the audience here today are professional journalists. Just imagine for a moment that these enormous giants began to control, more than they do already, the contents of your profession. Who will stand up to them? And through what mechanisms?
By way of a conclusion: the current enemies of freedom of speech are much more powerful than classic dictators. We must begin to fight them.
[Contribution to the session on Freedom of Speech which took place on 3 May in the headquarters of the Press Association of Madrid.]