The news this week that Twitter is about to start censoring tweets so as to ‘curb hate speech’ sounds admirable and long overdue.
But is there a darker side to this? We suggest that yes, there is – yet again ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.
The Evolving ‘Right’ to Free Speech
First, to quickly restate something many people confuse – the First Amendment, and for that matter, all the Bill of Rights, applies primarily and usually exclusively only to the federal government.
Although these generally flow through to the states, they do not apply to private individuals and corporations. They do however set up a social framework within which companies might (perhaps even should) choose to operate.
So when people talk about their ‘right to free speech’ that right – such as it ever is and was – that right does not apply to activities concerning individuals and companies. For example, you have no right to commandeer a website – even The Travel Insider – and add whatever you wish as comments to their articles; I and all other web publishers are allowed to restrict or ‘censor’ or edit the comments we receive.
But it is one thing to delete a spam comment on an article that is merely an advertisement for some sort of unwanted dubious device, investment, or medical product. It is another thing entirely to operate a public communications service that ostensibly promotes free and open communication for all, and then start to influence the type of public communications that can be undertaken.
These are the areas where commercial prejudice is now impinging – sometimes invisibly – on our ability to freely and fully express ourselves. Regrettably, these are seldom decisions that have been carefully formed by ‘wise men’ – more commonly they are the personal views of ego-centric twenty-somethings.
Acceptable Limitations become Unacceptable Limitations
The right to free speech has already been famously abridged in the example that it would not be permissible to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater (when there is no fire present).
Since that time, we have seen some sorts of formerly free speech made illegal – that which promotes illegal activities, that which offends (but only if it offends non-traditional but mysteriously ‘politically correct’ views, not if it offends mainstream thought), and of course, the nebulous concept of ‘hate speech’ which seems to mean only those actions when white and/or Christian people say things that, whether valid or not, upset people of other races or religions, but which never seems to encompass the statements of ‘people of color’ or of ‘other faiths’ when they make similar or stronger utterances against white/Christian people.
These restraints, which already leave our First Amendment selectively in tatters, are made worse by the activities of private companies that between them dominate and in large part control much of the content on the internet.
For example, look at Craigslist. That website has almost single-handedly destroyed the classified advertising revenue of most traditional newspapers, and it gained fame – perhaps better to say notoriety – as resisting every possible attempt by various community groups and authorities to restrict the amount of messages/advertisements it accepted from prostitutes and other types of sex workers. If you wanted to engage in illegal immoral activities, Craigslist was the place to go for many years.
It was only after a coalition of state attorney generals threatened Craigslist with coordinated massive legal consequences that CL agreed to limit such advertisements, and it went through several sham settlements that actually didn’t restrict such advertising at all until finally cracking down.
But, spot the incongruity. If a person wishes to, 100% legally, buy or sell a firearm, Craigslist refuses to allow them to do that. You could illegally offer and arrange sex with a minor, but you couldn’t legally buy/sell firearms. Why is that?
Oh, the same prohibition applies to eBay as well.
There’s more – if you actually did manage to buy/sell a firearm, you couldn’t then use Paypal as a method for paying for it. Paypal doesn’t allow such perfectly legal transactions to go through its system.
Another example. Google. It is an essential part of the internet experience for most of us. Google is also not just an essential part of the internet experience for us as web visitors/browsers, but it is also an essential part of many web publishers and their ability to earn an income from their websites. That is certainly true of me – the Google advertising on The Travel Insider represents a valuable source of income. Without Google, the Travel Insider would financially collapse.
But Google limits the types of webpages it allows its advertising on. It has a fairly lengthy list of topics which it refuses to put its ads on (including, yes, you guessed it, firearms related pages). It doesn’t refuse to do this because there is no commercial value for Google, it doesn’t refuse to do this because it is illegal, it just refuses to do it because someone at Google doesn’t like guns. So if that person at Google doesn’t like a perfectly lawful activity, the company feels able to unilaterally impose its values and prejudices on the country and entire world.
Uncomfortable Topics of Free Speech are Essential for Society’s Evolving Freedoms
The problem with all these restrictions is that many times matters that have subsequently become accepted and celebrated as pro-freedom and for the public good are matters that initially were deemed seditious or immoral or illegal or in some other way harmful. That is the strength of the concept of free unabridged speech. It allows a full airing of both popular and unpopular views and opinions, and allows a society to evolve outside of its present value system.
Indeed, things such as equal rights (for both women and minority groups) started off as being unpopular and unwelcome, and the concept of gay rights was initially thought of as immoral and offensive. If Twitter and other such websites were around in the early evolution of these issues that are now part of our mainstream thinking, they’d probably have ruled them to be ‘hate speech’ and refused to allow the promulgation of such topics.
These social groups – who now are often fast to call for restrictions on expressions of opinion that run counter to their own – would do well to remember that they owe their modern-day social acceptance to their ability to have freely expressed their originally unpopular opinions in the past. Rather than being among the first to now seek curbs on freedoms of speech, they should be among the most stalwart defenders of that right.
How Can Twitter Internationally Define What Is and Is Not ‘Hate Speech’?
Twitter’s big claim to social claim – being used as an organizing tool by protesters in the various ‘Arab Spring’ countries poses an interesting question with an embarrassingly US-centric answer.
Is Twitter going to define ‘hate speech’ by each applicable country’s set of social and legal values, or will it impose a set of values created by a nerdy twenty-something executive in Twitter’s US headquarters?
There’s no right answer to this. If Twitter allows each country to selectively define what is and is not acceptable, the value of Twitter as a means to promote change has disappeared. But on the other hand, who gave Twitter the right to unilaterally imposes its own world-view on the entire world? Twitter’s strength and growth came from its open unrestricted format.
Well the lack of right answer is due to the wrong question being asked. Rather than questioning the ‘best’ way to moderate and censor and restrict free speech on Twitter, the question should be whether free speech should be constrained on Twitter at all. We suggest Twitter should remain open to all. Being selectively offended is the trivial cost of free speech.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to find it offensive, when logging on to Twitter, that it should recommend we start following the vacuous 140 character utterances of Britney Spears! But there’s no suggestion Twitter will start limiting those sorts of messages.
While it remains true that companies and individuals are not bound by the First Amendment, it is still appropriate for them to largely embrace one of America’s core values as part of their own business practices.
There is a reason that the First Amendment is listed first in the Bill of Rights – surely an open dialog on all topics, whether they be comfortable or uncomfortable to some groups in society, is an essential part of allowing society to continue to redefine itself peacefully and on the basis of evolving consensus.
And when a company becomes single-handedly the market monster – whether it be Twitter, Google, eBay, Paypal or Craigslist – shouldn’t they not only have to conform to laws about what is prohibited, but also to laws about what is perfectly legal and common/mainstream?