Freedom of speech in the age of Facebook

Kulturministerens tale til Norsk redaktørforenings høstmøte 31. oktober 2016.

Dear audience. Dear editors. Dear representatives of Facebook

First, I would like to thank the Association of Norwegian Editors for hosting this important debate. And not least: a big thanks to Facebook and Patrick Walker for taking up the editor's challenge to come here today. I am convinced that dialog is more important than ever when it comes to strengthen freedom of speech in the age of Facebook. People like us, who set the standards for society's development, have a special responsibility to take part in open dialogue.

The background for this debate has been well presented today. Many people reacted to what they perceived as unjust censorship. Among those was both the author Tom Egeland, our Prime Minister Erna Solberg and myself.

So why did we take such an interest in this debate? What triggered us?

Well, for our prime minister it was a personal experience. She told her story to the British newspaper The Guardian, amongst others:
The prime minister is a Facebook-user, as most of us. One day, she was on her way from Oslo to Trondheim my home town by plane. Before the plane took off, she had shared Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War photograph as a statement in the ongoing debate about Facebook’s editing policies. When she arrived and turned her phone back on, she noticed something very odd. It was something that had never happened to her before: The post had been removed from her page, without any warning.

Facebook later reversed their policy in this particular case. But serious questions still remain. These questions are very relevant to my responsibility as the Minister of Freedom of Speech. This is why I chose to stand by the Association of Norwegian Editors' invitation to Facebook. I am very happy that you are here, Patrick, to discuss these questions with us.

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I understand the social media's needs for so-called community standards. We need standards and monitoring. Otherwise, there is a risk that Facebook would redistribute punishable expressions.

I also understand that it is impossible for human eyes to monitor billions of daily posts. You need algorithms to do the job. But sometimes the algorithms fail. Sometimes they stand in the way of the important, healthy and normal public debate that is so essential to our democracies.

I am happy that the vice president of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, decided to listen to our Prime Minister. She sent her a personal letter thanking her for her commitment and promising to change the way the community standards and algorithms works. For me, this is a display of cultural sensibility and willingness to listen.

However, Facebook users still have no guarantee that such incidents may not occur again. Therefore, I hope you will continue to listen to your users and their needs. And I hope you will continue to support freedom of speech, especially in countries where this freedom has poor conditions.

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Although it is not our core issue today, we should remember that freedom of speech is not only influenced by censorship.

It is said that good journalists always follow the money. Ironically, in today's financial situation they are still headed the same way as the money: out the doors of the media enterprises.

Less journalists means less content. Less money means unwillingness to take editorial risks. This means less diversity in both media enterprises and media content.

In other words, large cutbacks impair the media's ability to perform its democratic function: to enable citizens to make conscious and informed choices and to participate in elections and other democratic processes. 

Why has this happened? Digitization is one major cause, or rather, the inability to establish new and profitable income models for the traditional media.

The emergence of new digital players is the other reason why the media economy is threatened. All media depend heavily on advertising as a source of financing. Today the advertising is moving towards online platforms and giants like Facebook and Google. This means a dramatic decline in profitability for the established media.

The consequences are severe, not only for journalists losing their jobs. This situation is a threat against free speech and public debate, and also to the health of our democracy.

I am of course not the only politician and as minister of media worried by this. We are doing what we can to secure diversity in the media and a healthy environment for public debate. In Norway, we have set up a Committee on media diversity, which is looking into how the media can be healthily financed in the future. I have also taken an initiative to discuss with my Nordic minister colleagues how we can face the challenge that Google and Facebook and other global companies pose to the Nordic model of media financing. – and how facing this challenges – still can take care of our small language, culture and Nordic values.

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Facebook has provided the world with a unique tool. Not only can we communicate easily with friends and family all over the world. We can also share our thoughts and believes with the world. Democratic revolutions have started on social media. Important ideas and information travel across the globe every second. Services like Facebook will continue to change our lives and shape our futures.

With such fantastic opportunities comes very serious responsibilities. I do not doubt for a second that Facebook wants every person and nation of the world to enjoy freedom of speech and unlimited access to a broad range of uncensored information.

It is my hope that you will therefore continue to do all in your power to make this happen. I think today – right now – it's an important step to strengthen freedom of speech in our society. Dialogue is the main tool to manage our common goal – more open and transparency,

Thank you again for being here today. I am looking forward to the debate.