On Unbridled Free Speech

In University I met Gil Troy, a right wing law processor who supported George W. Bush and the Iraq War. His many bad ideas included his respect and preference for complete free speech. I asked him if he believed in “Free speech or in free speech“. The latter being a somewhat controlled version of the US version. He responded that he preferred no limitations on free speech. I think that his belief stemmed from a trust that if you offer free speech, the truth will emerge and the control of free speech was too dangerous to sit within the jurisdiction of a state bureaucracy.

The problem with complete unbridled free speech is that it has been weaponized by online platforms. This year, the famous TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference took the courageous step of inviting a journalist to directly confront the tech platforms and call out their hypocrisy. The talk is a powerful indictment of their crimes.

This powerful talk does not go into detail. It barely mentions the crimes against humanity in Myanmar that were facilitated by Facebook. It does not mention the online abuse and bullying that is occurring on a variety of platforms or the blackmailing of all sorts of people, from ex-girlfriends with “revenge porn” to activists fighting for Palestinian human rights. In short, Carole Cadwalladr outlines how the internet is an amazing technology, but it has been weaponized and our governments have not had the courage to act.

Part of our failure to act stems from our love of freedom of speech. We have a very deeply held believe that the freer the speech, the better our societies will be. This was generally true in the past, where the cost of spreading disinformation and lies was substantial – you had to print pamphlets, newspapers, create radio stations and television stations. The costs did not stop hate from being propagated against all sorts of groups, but the setup costs at least allowed us some measure of control over these groups. We could monitor, tax and potentially levy penalties. Companies such as Fox News allowed the George W. Bush administration to propagate lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. The other cable networks and many newspapers went along for the ride. Nevertheless, online platforms have something no one has ever had: detailed psychological information on most citizens. That information is being weaponized in new and very powerful ways. In today’s online world, information and its consumption simply moves too fast for us to police in our traditional ways.

H.G. Wells famously said, “Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. ” But, it seems that spreading truth is not enough. We need to actively police and fight disinformation and lies that are leading people towards political movements and parties that have very dangerous undertones. The solution cannot be a lock down of freedom of speech or the creation of firewalls as we see in China. However, we also cannot let the world’s most profitable corporations have free run to make profits on our worst human inclinations.

Published on April 21, 2019