Controversial Reading 013021: Freedom of Speech

In the past, I have blended links of a more controversial nature about culture, technology, and governance into my weekend reads posts. There has been so much, however, on the situation with social media platforms blocking prominent people, and the Parler takedown, that it seemed worth setting aside an entire post containing some of the interesting things I’ve run across on these topics. I may, from time to time, gather up more controversial sets of reading into separate posts in the future, so people can skip (or read) them if they want to.

But then I think of this comment from a recent essay by Cory Doctorow: “The one entity Facebook will never, ever protect you from is Facebook.” We need to face quite clearly the fact that these recent events serve to consolidate the power of the tech giants—tech giants who quite literally have no principles to guide them other than self-interest, though they might occasionally discover reasons to act on our behalf.

Infrastructure companies much closer to the bottom of the technical “stack”— including Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS app stores—decided to cut off service not just to an individual but to an entire platform

Twitter once touted itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and rebuked Congress’ calls for it to ban terrorists, proclaiming that “the ability of users to share freely their views — including views that many people may disagree with or find abhorrent” — was its mission.

The digital market has matured over the last 20 years, and it is no longer an excuse for governments to do nothing with the aim to let new markets and innovations emerge without immediate regulatory oversight.

Late in 2019, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey floated “Project Blue Sky,” a plan for an interoperable, federated, standardized Twitter that would let users (or toolsmiths who work on behalf of users) gain more control over their participation in the Twitter system.

Section 230 is not a gift to Big Tech, nor is repealing it a panacea for the problems Big Tech is causing—to the contrary repealing it will only exacerbate those problems. The thing you hate is not 230. It’s lack of competition.

What should platforms like Facebook or YouTube do when users post speech that is technically legal, but widely abhorred? In the U.S. that has included things like the horrific video of the 2019 massacre in Christchurch. What about harder calls – like posts that some people see as anti-immigrant hate speech, and others see as important political discourse?

Laws regulating platforms can also regulate their users. Some laws may protect users, as privacy laws often do. Others, including many well-intentioned regulations of online content, can erode protections for users’ rights. If such laws are crafted poorly enough, they will violate the Constitution.

After a decade or so of the general sentiment being in favor of the internet and social media as a way to enable more speech and improve the marketplace of ideas, in the last few years the view has shifted dramatically—now it seems that almost no one is happy. Some feel that these platforms have become cesspools of trolling, bigotry, and hatred. Meanwhile, others feel that these platforms have become too aggressive in policing language and are systematically silencing or censoring certain viewpoints.

What happened was that the network platforms turned the originally decentralized worldwide web into an oligarchically organized and hierarchical public sphere from which they made money and to which they controlled access. That the original, superficially libertarian inclinations of these companies’ founders would rapidly crumble under political pressure from the left was also perfectly obvious.