Suzanne Nossel headshot

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” This week, we discuss the splintering of the internet as countries assert their so-called “digital sovereignty,” today’s elections in Iran, and the ongoing debate over teaching divisive topics on campus. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 13:17 mark).

On Digital Sovereignty and the Splintering of the Internet

“In the digital arena, in cyberspace, there are no borders. The internet is global, at least in its original conception and form. Information, communications move around without reference to these national boundaries. At first, in the halcyon days of the internet, this was recognized as a wonderful boon to freedom of speech and connectivity and flowering all sorts of networks that could rise up in this digital realm, with the geographic distance effectively collapsed. Of course, what’s happened, unsurprisingly, over time, is that governments have realized that this universality of cyberspace in many ways can pose an encroachment on the sovereignty and dominion that they’re accustomed to wielding within their borders. Because of course, for example, an idea that would be censored or banned in a given country, if it were printed in a newspaper or a book, may well enter in and gain steam and go viral on social media.”

“Countries have now, for a long time, asserted their own rules and laws and insisted that global platforms like a Google or a Facebook or a Twitter adhere to those laws. They write to those firms, they tell them to take down content that violates local law. And the platforms do that, because it’s a condition to being able to operate within these jurisdictions. If they don’t follow the law, they can and sometimes do get shut out entirely. What our report documents is a sort of intensifying of this trend to a new level—an assertion of cyber sovereignty, a determination on the part of many countries, both authoritarian and, increasingly, democratic countries, to assert and extend their sovereignty to the digital realm. . . . The report really breaks all of this down and makes a series of recommendations about how to blunt the most dangerous effects of this trend toward digital sovereignty while still respecting freedom of speech.”

On Elections and the State of Human Rights in Iran

“The state of play is quite bleak. We have a government that has called itself reformist but has really been anything but. Iran is the world’s fourth worst jailer of writers on our annual Freedom to Write Index this year, with a number of signature cases that are just deeply poignant. Nasrin Sotoudeh is one that I’ll highlight, our 2011 PEN Freedom to Write Award winner who has been in and out of prison ever since and has been enduring a really incredible ordeal over the last year and a half, with a hunger strike, getting COVID in prison, not getting proper medical care, getting furloughed, getting rearrested. . . This is a government that really is impervious to international human rights obligations.”

“There’s a lot of fear that with the election that’s just upon us, that things may get even worse. It’s a more hardline government that may come in, that has a track record of executing individuals. . . for crimes like drinking alcohol. So it’s a dire situation—not new, but perhaps on the cusp of intensifying even further in terms of repression.”

On Legislative Crackdowns on the Teaching of Critical Race Theory

“We’ve seen this increasingly coming from the right, that they hold themselves forth as standard-bearers for freedom of expression and the First Amendment. Former President Trump used to do that. At the same time, they go after their critics mercilessly, with the president targeting journalists and media organizations. This is a great illustration of precisely that hypocrisy: of at the same time purporting to be a champion of free speech on campus, and being outraged by ‘the censoriousness of the woke left,’ and at the same time, trying to pass a bill stating that certain ideas should be banned.”

“We put out a letter just yesterday with about 80 different organizations—many of them academic groups, like the American Historical Association and the American Philosophical Association and many other disciplines—objecting and protesting this spate of state-level laws that are purporting to block and prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, often without any definition of what that is. It’s very problematic from a First Amendment perspective, from an academic freedom perspective, and we’re doing a lot of work to try to call it out for what it is, which is government censorship—nothing less.”