Here is the speech I made in the Lords last week about the internet’s effect on freedom of belief.

“I add my thanks to lord alton for securing this debate and providing such inspiring leadership in the area of international human rights.

My lords I have no strongly held religious beliefs.

I feel lucky that I can stand up in the second chamber of our parliament and proclaim what I believe with no fear of reprisal. I can link to my brief speech today on my blog without fear of any consequence.

I can tweet, share on facebook and if I was feeling particularly socialble on tumblr too.

As with so many areas that your lordships house tackles, technology and the digital world is changing the landscape. human rights and freedom to express your beliefs is no exception.

When article 18 of the UN declaration was created there is no possible brain that could have conceived of the future connectivity of the world. My goodness, even when I started working in the digital sector in the mid 1990s there was no google, no facebook, certainly no twitter.

My lords I would like to make a plea that we don’t forget the vital importance to many people of these new global technology platforms. They often ensure people are able to get support and often even reveal abuses of freedom.

I would also like to cautiion that as we come to understand this brave new world there are risks and questions.

to start with the positive.

I asked my wise twitter followers for examples of where technology had enabled religious freedoms and I was overwhelmed with responses. But one hit home. A young man who asked to remain anonymous described how as a gay christian in zimbabwe he thought his life was not in danger – until he got connected and found hundreds of communities in the digital world where he felt safe to talk about the complex issues he faced.

He added, touchingly that one of the reasons he wanted to tell me his story was because he had felt so enamoured of the UK when he read on the bbc website about the passing of gay marriage legislation.

I am sure there are many stories like his – people who have found solace and relief in the shared networks of the online world. Take for example the case of the girls snatched by Boko Haram or the tragic situation of miriam ibrahim- which while still unresolved certainly have had more attention and amplification due to to technology. For a long period of time I couldn’t look at my own networks without another person passing on a message to #bringback our girls and in miriams case I am sure global attention spread faster than ever before with the help of the retweet.
it seems you can hardly be a self respecting religious leader without active social media management. Look at the pope and his 4.27m twitter followers or the dalai lama (9.14m) or even the president of iran, ayatollah khomeni with his 350,000 followers. Religion takes many forms on Facebook. There’s a Page for The Bible, with more than 4.5 million Likes. Places of worship have their own Pages, as do important buildings such as the Support Al-Aqsa Mosque Page, with 25000 Likes. There are also some popular applications — The God Wants You to Know app has around 2 million monthly active users, for example. Religious Facebook ads have also appeared, like Pray for an Atheist, which advertised to get people to pray for atheists to convert to Christianity. I found examples as diverse as a nun who tweets from her silent order, a global group of jesuits connected on linkedin and a portal for Buddhists.

I do not believe we can debate the defence of article 18 without making sure that we are always championing a free and open internet. No government should be allowed to shut down the platforms that enable people to express themselves. My lords there are currently 44 countries worldwide that are censoring the internet and this is immensely serious.

It is no surprise that the five worst performing countries against criteria of open and free internet (as mapped by the web foundation) are saudi arabia, vietnam, china, yemen and qatar. in china, during the peaceful protest by law abiding muslims in the north west provinces in 2009 the government shut down twitter, facebook and youtube – this was well before the muslim uighur separatists attacks that folllowed.

In 2009, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali attempted to ban Facebook – The attempt was relatively quickly abandoned in the face of a firestorm of public discontent. 18 months later, activist youth deployed social media as one tool in their revolution against Ben Ali, which has often been cited as the first spark of the so-called arab spring.

It took the world by surprise when moderate turkish twitter users suddenly found that president erdogan had shut down the whole network when they criticised his corrupt cabinet and blaming ‘dangerous religous extremism’.

So, The global connectivity we now live in can deliver enormous gains in freedom of speech and belief. However it would be naieve of me to suggest this was not also leading to a far more complex and interlinked world of extremist behaviour.

I would like to emphasise that i believe the majority of activity online is benign but we only have to look at the very effective way that ISIS in Iraq has used technology to push out its twisted messages as well as raise money to see the other side of the freedoms of the web.

but I would urge policy makers into caution here – surely it is always better to err on the side of freedom of speech – surely better to tread lightly and carefully. of course we need to prosecute people who fall foul of the law but I would hate to see a world where expressing religious views that some find unacceptable might lead to a knock on the door.

we in this country, are mercifully far away from that scenario but many people around the world are not. one thing is certain – the changing nature of technology, the ability for endless collection of data and the tension that preserving open platforms presents will continue to add complexity to the important issue we are debating here today.”

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