Mikael Pawlo on 25 Feb 2001 05:43:28 -0000

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<nettime> Virtual freedom in virtual communities

Virtual freedom in virtual communities?

The publisher of the most succesful web site in Sweden and according to
some studies, in Europe, is subject to an interesting law suit. The
publisher of Aftonbladet.se is charged with the crime of hate speech due
to a posting submitted in Aftonbladet.se's virtual community.

Aftonbladet is Swedens leading daily newspaper. It's web site is organized
in four main categories. The first category is the most popular one and
constist naturally of the news. The second largest is the community. The
editors raise questions like "was it right to fire a certain corporate
leader or for this politican to resign", "should the right to abortion be
abolished" or "do you download music with Napster". You can often answer
the questions through polls, but also by submitting comments in a way not
unlike editorial comments on issues in the paper version of the magazine.
The third category is the moderated chat. This is not a chatboard, but a
forum where the reader is able to submit questions to a a famous person,
thus getting interviewed by the readers. The fourth category is new
services, like wap, email and sms services.

The second category, the community, is the one now at stake. One of the
issues raised was one regarding the Middle East. The disussions got more
or less out of hand and one reader submitted some remarks, argued to be of
racist nature. I won't rewrite them here for obvious reasons.
Aftonbladet.se do some mild moderation. The moderation is mild and this
issue must be pressed and also explained. It has an historical background.

This is the magazine that actually invented freedom of the press in
Sweden. Aftonbladet was found in 1830 by Lars-Johan Hierta. The
controversy creating freedom of the press started when Aftonbladet was
forbidden, censored and closed down. Aftonbladet survived the closing down
by resurrecting itself about thirty times during the 19th century. The
king forbade the magazine due to criticism published against the royal
family and its whereabouts and powers. The magazine was closed down, but
just started all over again by adding a new number to it's name. When
Aftonbladet was censored, Aftonbladet 2 became it's successor, when
Aftonbladet 2 was censored, Aftonbladet 3 followed and so forth up. He
also tried The New Aftonbladet and other more or less thrilling titles.
Hierta owned and ran the magazine between 1830 and 1851. During these 21
years Aftonbladet had been published under 26 different titles.

Back to 2001 or actually 2000. During the fall of 2000 one participant in
the community posted the mentioned items. It follows from Swedish law that
the publisher can be held liable and accountable for any postings on a web
site. This is widely known, but has been considered a null and void
statute. This statue has also been considered uncertain and unclear by
many legal scholars, because on one hand the one actually submitting the
item could be held liable, but on the other hand the publisher is
considered the exclusive perpetrator beeing a so-called fictitious
perpetrator. The latter is the case for all printed media with a
registered publisher. The former is the case for some web sites, but may
or may not be the case in this specific situation. I won't use my crystal
ball when it comes to litigation. Anything can happen in a trial and this
has never been tried before in Sweden so there is no case law available.

According to the Swedish ombudsman for the media, Olle Stenholm, it's good
that the publisher of Aftonbladet.se is charged with the crime of hate
speech, since, and I quote, (however roughly due to the translation): "a
virtual community on the Internet is a greenhouse for hate speech and
something must be done. The postings shall be fewer (i e less frequent)
and postings must be deleted more often. Debate foras like this shall not
be abused in this way."

The case is interesting in the light of another recent freedom of speech
incident in Sweden, where another major Swedish website was closed down.
In that case, the closing down was done outside of the courtroom. The
larger companies denied the underground web site Flashback access and they
denied smaller ISPs backbone access if they would take Axelsson as a
customer. Thus Flashback was put offline.

The Swedish high chancellor, who is in charge of all freedom of speech
legal issues regarding the media, has decided to charge the publisher of
Aftonbladet.se with the hate speech crime.

If the publisher is convicted he might be sentenced to as much as two
years in prison. This is unlikely, if he's actually convicted he will
probably be fined.

The real problem with the case is, as you can figure, the issue as such.
If the publisher of Aftonbladet.se is convicted, few other web sites in
Sweden will provide communities such as the one you are visiting now.

So, will the publisher of Aftonbladet.se be convicted? It's too early to
speculate, but if you find this interesting I might post a follow-up,
reporting from the trial.

What I find most troubling is the current situation in Sweden where
freedom of speech on the Internet is considered a persona non grata. The
charge of the publisher of Aftonbladet.se and Flashback incident are both
serious indicators of rougher attitude on freedom of speech. My personal
view is that information not always is free. The same restrictions, limits
and regulation of freedom of speech must apply to the Internet as in the
rest of the society. What I never will accept is the ongoing situation
where Internet is considered a medium where the freedom of speech shall be
more limited and regulated than in the rest of society. That is, in my
opinion, a fatal road to travel. And the road leads to censorship hell. We
shall have real freedom in the virtual communities.

Related links:


Story on the closing down of Flashback:


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