Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Internet is eroding free speech

An article in The Economist about a year ago pointed out that free speech protections around the world have been eroding the last few years. I had already recognized that, but the article highlighted a cause that I hadn't considered: The Internet. How is it possible that the single greatest communication technology ever invented, one that was specifically designed to remove central controls and chokepoints, and one that has become ubiquitous in the developed world and has given every single person connected to it the ability to publish their ideas to the world, could actually damage free speech? If true, it certainly seems like the mother of all unintended consequences. The mechanisms are simple and in hindsight pretty obvious. There are two major elements, but they both boil down to one issue: If everyone has unfettered free speech, unlimited even by social constraints, some people will say stuff that really offends the majority, to the point that the majority decides to take action to shut it down. In the weaker and less worrisome of these mechanisms, the majority in question acts through government or other central power mechanisms. Many European nations ban many forms of Nazi-supporting speech, for example, as an arguably-reasonable reaction to a war that killed something approaching 100 million people. The Internet exacerbates the tendency towards these sorts of speech restriction by bringing disparate cultures with different ideas of what is offensive into collision. European ideas about what sorts of restrictions on speech are very different from American ideas, and both are quite different from Asian (particularly Chinese) ideas. So the Chinese have their Great Firewall, and Europe has used legal action to force American Internet companies to comply with some of their ideas. An even more stark contrasts exists between the norms of Muslim theocracies and Western secular democracies. Taken to its logical conclusion, this collision of views on what speech should be muzzled could result in a "least common denominator" version of speech on the Internet which, which allows only that which offends no one. But technology does enable services to distinguish, albeit imperfectly, between people in different locations so it seems more likely that we'll just continue building out a balkanized Internet, with content restricted by region. That's a bad thing, but it's much less worrisome than the other mechanism, which seems likely to erode free speech even in regions of the world that prize it highly. The United States, since its inception, has always considered the freedom of political speech as the highest principle and deepest foundation of freedom and democratic self-government. The Internet may destroy that, or at least seriously weaken it. Back in the early days of the Internet, we had a marvelous thing called USENET. I started using it in 1990, about a decade after it came into existence. USENET is a massive set of online discussion forums, covering almost every conceivable topic, and with rare exceptions these forums are complete free-for-alls. Anyone with access (which was primarily through University computers) can post anything they like. Back in those early days, users of USENET and mailing lists created an idea which now seems quaint: "netiquette", a set of rules for online interaction intended to keep discussions civil and the "signal to noise ratio" high. New users often violated these rules, but they were called out and by old hands and large they quickly learned how to behave. Those few who didn't were shut down simply by giving them the cold shoulder. An interesting phenomenon arose during those early days. Each September a new batch of freshmen started their University educations and discovered USENET. This annual surge of new users led to a pattern of battles with netiquette violations each fall, which settled down as the new users either became accustomed to the rules of on-line civility, or got bored and wandered away. In 1993, though, "Eternal September" began, and online conversation has never returned to the civil, educated dialogue of those early days. The cause of Eternal September was that America Online (AOL), a large online service provider, gave its user base access to USENET. This created a massive and perpetual influx of new users, at a pace that meant that the forums were always populated with them. In addition, the new users came from all walks of life, not just university students, staff, faculty and alumni, and they were posting from user accounts they paid AOL for, rather than accounts that were provided by a university -- and could be taken away for egregious violations. Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously wrote something in his opninion on Whitney v California which is often paraphrased as "the answer to bad speech is more speech", to educate and correct the speaker of the bad speech. His actual statement, though, is more nuanced, and recognizes that such a simple view doesn't always work. What he really said (emphasis mine) was:
If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
What has been discovered time and again by operators of online forums is that if enough users are present, and absent some other sort of strong social mechanism, there is no time to avert the evil by education. Trying to educate, or drown out, bad speech without enforcing silence, just descends into an unending shouting match. Signal-to-noise ratio approaches zero as there is no room to have any constructive discussion.

The solution is various forms of control and moderation: Some people are empowered to remove the speech of others, or even remove their ability to speak entirely. In its immediate effects, this is a good thing. The fact that there are many, many online forums means that if people find the moderation in one place to be unacceptable, either because it's too heavy or too light, they can find somewhere else more to their liking, and they can speak there. As such, the prevalence of moderation mechanisms in online discussion doesn't appear to seriously impact freedom of speech.

But it does.

It does so by teaching people that it's not only okay but a Good Thing to have authorities who are empowered to silence bad speech. The generation growing up with social media sees online bullying and abuse as problems which can and should be shut down by invoking authoritarian mechanisms to silence them. The mechanisms range from users who delete or suppress comments on their own posts to intervention by the forum operator to ban users.

At that level, it is a good thing to silence bad speech. There's no social value in facilitating abuse and bullying. The problem is that the experience of people growing up seeing such control mechanisms and normal and desirable seems to be leading them to expect that the same approach should be applied to all bad speech, in all contexts.

The clearest example of this is the recent spate of protests by university students, who are demanding that administrators shut down all sorts of real-world speech they find unpleasant. While from one perspective it might seem like this is a logical extension of online protections against bullying and mechanisms to improve signal-to-noise, it's actually very different. University regulations have real-world teeth with no analogue in the online world.

Moreover, the profusion of online forums has enabled people to create or seek out "safe spaces" where their ideas and beliefs can remain unchallenged... and that, too, is something that we're seeing university students demand be created for them. This goes well beyond simply preventing bullying or abuse, to avoid or silence substantive debate or discussion on topics of great importance, merely because they're uncomfortable or controversial.

Universities are struggling with whether they should accede to these demands, and to what degree. That's an important battle, but the really important battles are those that are going to be occurring a decade or two in the future. Whatever university administrators do, in the future we're going to live in a world where policymakers see suppression of unpleasant speech as normal and expected.

Who knows what they'll choose to suppress?

I'm going to take some time to have a serious conversation about these issues with my teenage and young adult children. We need to ensure that they see very clearly that there's a vast difference between moderation on Facebook and legal restrictions on speech that some may find offensive. We need to teach them that it is critically important that intolerant, obnoxious and even extremely offensive speech be permitted.

Along the way it'd be nice to teach them netiquette, because social rules that lack central enforcement mechanisms are much less dangerous to speech, but that may be wishing for too much.

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