Free speech Is Not A Pony

I’m quoted in the New York Times today talking about the difficulty in the State Department’s attempt to portray freedom of speech as a human rights issue, while sidestepping the fact that freedom of speech is a destabilizing force in autocratic governments:

You can’t say ‘All we want is for people to speak their minds, not bring down autocratic regimes’ — they’re the same thing.

“Thing” was a sloppy word to use; what I should have said is that they are the same desire. The State Department can’t say they want people in autocracies to have freedom of speech without admitting that this is an expressly political desire–as are all assertions about human rights, however construed–and that this desire is expressly inimical to autocracy.

The next paragraph of the Times’ piece adds just such a clarification:

He added that the United States could expose itself to charges of hypocrisy if the State Department maintained its support, tacit or otherwise, for autocratic governments running countries like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain while deploying technology that was likely to undermine them.

Freedom of speech is inimical to autocratic control, both as cause and effect. When people are free to publicly contradict assertions made by their government, it makes it harder for those governments to govern unilaterally, and the kind of governments that commit themselves to freedom of speech are usually (perhaps invariably?) democracies.

My friend Zeynep Tufekci of U-Maryland and summed up this idea far better than I did: “The internet isn’t your pony such that you can support free speech and expect it not to have political consequences.”