Christian Frank is a freelance IT consultant who was born and raised, and currently resides, in Cologne, Germany. Last year, he did some work protesting the Article 13 demonstrations in Europe, a topic that he remains passionate about, as you’ll see in this interview.
Our conversation gives some perspective as to the differences between German and U.S. views on freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to hate speech. But there’s also a lot of similarities: Christian’s experiences growing up in Germany during the split between East and West, with parents who experienced World War II, have shaped his views about who should—and shouldn’t—regulate what we can and cannot say.
We also discussed the promise of social media, and the internet as—to use Christian’s words—“another living space” that we need to keep fighting to protect.
Jillian C. York: Thanks for joining me today, Christian. Let me start with a basic question: What does free speech mean to you?
Free speech to me means that I can speak my mind without fearing for reprisals. It doesn’t mean that I can berate or hate on people, but it means that I can speak my mind without fear.
York: We’re at a difficult moment right now when it comes to a variety of different online speech. What do you think we should be doing when it comes to speech online?
For me, there is a distinction between free speech and hate speech. As long as I speak my mind, I don’t think we should do anything. If I start hating on other people, I would expect someone to stop me. I think there’s a different. There’s this old saying from Rosa Luxembourg: “Your freedom ends where the other’s begins.” That’s kind of my take on it.
I would object to any kind of censorship, but free speech is not an excuse for hate speech. At least that’s how I see it.
York: I’m curious then...you said you’re against censorship. Do you think that some limitations on even hateful speech could be censorship?
That’s probably the most difficult question, and I don’t have an answer. From where I grew up, in Germany, we’ve always had a limit on free speech, and that limit is that you’re not allowed to speak in favor of the Nazis. I think that’s quite okay; I would not consider that censorship, but that’s also because of my cultural background and the fact that it’s always been that way.
I don’t think that it’s curbing your free speech if you’re required to use some civility and not spread hate that way.
York: From where I sit, one of the concerns that I have is the question of who gets to decide what is hate speech, or who is a terrorist, and so on. What do you think about the current state of play on the internet in terms of how much control corporations have over the governance of speech?
Well, at the moment, corporations have all control, right? There’s no governance body outside of the corporations. And I personally think the corporations, because they’re not bound by ideology, are actually doing a reasonable job. I would much rather have the corporations continue than to introduce a state-run body. That’s open for misuse.
The generation before mine perfected this, and I don’t want that again. I don’t want states to control free speech. Corporations aren’t necessarily evil, they just want to make money.
York: Huh, I feel like that position really must depend on which state one comes from.
Well, both my parents were in the last war, so I have direct connections, so to speak. The other half of Germany was a dictatorship until 1989, and we all know what the state can do to free speech. Censorship is a really powerful instrument, I think, and I would not give this amount of control to a government. Governments can change, democracies can go away. Maybe we could introduce some kind of neutral body, but I don’t know.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trust Mark Zuckerberg as a person, but even Facebook is doing a good job to protect their ad revenues, which is a much better driver than ideology.
York: Is there a personal story you’d be willing to share that helped shape your views on speech?
Well, for me, that story is visits to the GDR. In the GDR, they had a very strong secret service, the Stasi, so whatever you were saying, even in private settings, you had to be very careful about what you said. And we, as Westerners, were under double scrutiny. That was not free at all, it was very oppressing.
I never had any personal consequences, but every time I was in East Berlin, I was very very careful. As a West German citizen, I had to cross over back from the east at 10pm, so even if you were with friends at 9:30, you had to rush, since it was a nightmare if you didn’t make it. I remember at midnight, the American broadcasting station in Berlin would be tolling the Liberty Bell, and I would sigh and think “I’m home.”
But—I grew up white and male, I’m absolutely privileged. In my daily life in West Germany, I never had an issue.
York: Still, it’s an important perspective. Many people who grow up with some sort of privilege never get to see these things firsthand.
So let me ask this: What advice would you give to the next generation, the younger generation? I worry sometimes that younger folks don’t care that much about free speech anymore.
May I digress? I’d actually like to object to what you’re saying, because from my view, Generation Z is so political...at least the people that I see. Around Article 13, they were brilliant. It was so much fun to go to the streets with them. When I was young, after the ‘68 student revolts, we were very political. We’d march against nuclear energy, missiles. Then, after us, nothing happened, there were a lot of apolitical generations after us. But this current generation is so political! I was happy to be able to support them with Article 13, and now I’m happy to be able to support them on the climate strike, doing grown-up stuff for them.
So, to Generation Z, the only thing I can say is: Don’t give up. Go on. You’re already on the right path.
I think this generation values speech very highly. If you hear them talk about climate justice, it has a very social and very liberalist aspect. So, like I said, with the current generation, I’m not worried at all.
York: I love that! Okay, then I guess I want to also ask you a little more about Article 13. It’s an unfortunate and interesting time when it comes to copyright. A lot of people don’t see the right to share, the right to remix, as a speech issue. So, how do you frame it as a free speech issue?
What I see the big music labels and publishers do is try to protect their revenue stream. I don’t think it’s really an issue of free speech or not [for them], they’re just trying to protect their revenue stream. What they ignore completely, is that all the provisions in Article 13 would close social media.
For me, it’s not as much about free speech—even if it comes into full effect, I can say what I want, I just can’t share what I want. From my point of view, it’ll kill social media, it’ll kill off the environment that my kids grew up in, which I’m pretty mad about—they are too—but I can still put myself out in front of a white wall without music and say “our government is shite.” That Article 13 won’t prohibit. It’ll completely cut down my reach, but it won’t disallow me to speak my mind. It’ll kill off social media, all the discussions, the communication, the conversation. It’s absolutely awful.
Now, here, it’s taken a backseat to climate issues, but we still have to fight it. It’s not over. There’s still hope.
York: Yes, I agree, there’s still hope. Well, I think we’ve covered most of my questions, but: Are there any other thoughts you want to add?
What really worries me is the right-wing groups putting out their hate under the cover of free speech. There’s a lot of servers—not just 4chan or 8chan, but even on diaspora*, where a “free speech” server will play host to hate. They’ve kind of occupied the term, and this is enabled by the US president, who would say that if you don’t publish these nutters, you’re against free speech.
York: So the term has been co-opted?
Yes. And that’s something that we, “liberal-minded intellectuals”, need to think about. Free speech is important, it’s a basic human right. If you can’t speak your mind, you can’t think. It’s a massive violation of your basic human rights. But still, I don’t want to give it to the right-wing people and have them spout their fascism, which is not free speech.
York: Well, it is in the US.
I know, I know. I can only speak from my point of view, and yes, I’ve spent most of my time in Europe. I think what we need to do is take back control of free speech as a fundamental liberal value. Free speech is ours.
York: I’m curious what you think about the idea that fascists will always find their way around censorship. You can ban the swastika, for example, but they’ll just use other symbols to identify themselves.
Well, I grew up in a country where the swastika is banned, and I think it’s a good thing. Yes, they can come up with other symbols, but you can ban those too. I don’t see this as a problem. But that’s my background—I grew up with the understanding that the limit to free speech is the Third Reich, and none of that is allowed.
Banning symbols is one thing, but hate speech or inciting violence is another thing. If they start using code words, the mass appeal is gone. They can’t reach as many people if they’re not speaking plain language. If someone says “kill the Jews,” I think it’s right for them to be banned. I don’t see that as censorship, personally.
York: Well, that's possibly incitement. But social media platforms have also co-opted “hate speech” as a term. On Facebook, for example, “kill all men” is hate speech, but Holocaust denial isn’t. That doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.
I mean yes, that is entirely wrong. That’s not how it should be. But that’s probably close to Mark Zuckerberg’s beliefs. He doesn’t strike me as very liberal. But we can always go to Twitter.
The point is, social media is run by corporations, and run for profit. So we cannot expect a company to provide a platform that adheres to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It’s theirs, it’s not mine. I use it, but it’s theirs and they can do what they please. It’s a corporation, not a state, not people.
The difference is if I go to a community-run diaspora* server and I get banned, I can appeal, and it works. But if I go to Mark’s student project [Facebook] and he doesn’t like me saying things, well...it’s his server. I’m not even a customer, which would give me certain rights, I’m just using it. If we’re in a commercial space, can we really argue with fundamental rights? I don’t know!
York: [laughing] That’s what I’ve been doing for the past decade, so we certainly can!
Right, right. But if I go to national German radio, for example, I can force them to adhere to the UDHR. Can I force a corporation? I don’t know.
York: Right, I understand. It’s difficult to find a way to hold companies accountable to a human rights framework.
Obviously, I would fully support it, but now, the question is: Who can hold them accountable? They’re transnationals. The only body that could reasonably hold them accountable would be the United Nations. And I’m fully for it, the more we can force them to adhere to basic civility and liberty, I’m for it. I’m just thinking aloud: Where’s the body? Who can actually go to a corporation and say “you’re misbehaving”? And it means different things in Germany, or Saudi Arabia, or Hong Kong. So the only universal body would be the United Nations, and I would be all for it if they came up with a framework for social media.
York: I think that we’re getting to that point.
And yes, I think that would be the right body. It’s not up to the German government to make rules for Facebook. Even the EU is too small, in my opinion. The one thing that I don’t want to go back to is regional networks. Having a truly global network like social media—that’s something that I would like to protect. I don’t want it to be like, “In India you can say this, in Germany you can say this,” and if you want to talk across borders, you have to use your passport.
I lived through the transition of having to use a passport to go to the Netherlands to having free travel. And we also have free travel on the internet. If I want to talk to someone in Yemen, I can, provided we speak the same language of course. So that is, for me, also a huge freedom that social media has brought us. The internet has always had it, but social media for me made the internet accessible, and now I can chat with, say, Japanese guys.
York: Yeah, it’s easy sometimes for me to forget that the internet is still providing such an incredible way for people to meet across boundaries.
Yes, there’s a huge freedom in social media that we need to protect, that I would like to see protected. I have “internet friends” all over the world, and the only rules I need to obey are, for example, YouTube’s community guidelines. Okay.
So the question is: Is YouTube the right person to set those guidelines? Eh, maybe not, but who else? Most definitely not my government, I don’t want them to interfere at all.
The internet, to me, is like another living space, a second world. It needs protection. I’m always so fascinated to see the way my kids grew up—at 12, they had more connection to the world than I had at 30.
York: Indeed! Thank you so much Christian, I learned a lot.