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The Solution to Free Speech is a Functional Marketplace of Varied Venues

June 12, 2019 3 comments

I believe in free speech. I believe in a free society where I have the right to say something that deeply offends you, and you may say something that deeply offends me. Censorship of the internet in countries like China is disturbing, and other countries (including the United States and the European Union) are slipping towards censorship one tiny step at a time.

At the same time, I believe in the right to be free from harassment. I believe in the right to be free from crazy, false nonsense showing up on my computer screen (if I don’t want it to). I also believe there is such a thing as “false” and “true,” as I explain in a chapter from my forthcoming book Should You Believe Wikipedia? Truth is socially constructed, and we can sometimes make wrong decisions about what we believe to be “true.”   But truth exists, and all we can do is keep working hard to find it.

So how do we balance these competing desires? The answer is zoning.  There need to be places on the internet with different rules for what it’s OK to say, and what standards there are for verification of claims and politeness. Some of those places should be totally open, modulo respecting the most basic laws like the right to honest dealing in business and freedom from liable.  Other places should have standards.

I volunteer as a moderator on the subreddit r/science, which has over 21 million subscribers. Posts on r/science must link to a peer-reviewed scientific article published in the last six months in a journal with an impact factor of at least 1.5.  Comments must be about the science, and anecdotes and jokes are not allowed. The volunteer mods delete tons of great, interesting content. But that’s OK, because you can post that content on other subreddits like r/everythingscience or r/sciences, where the rules are laxer.  Reddit is one site on the internet that gets this right.  Different subs have different standards, and you can choose one that suits you or go ahead and create your own (as I suggest in my 1996 paper Finding One’s Own Space in Cyberspace).

When there are multiple spaces with different social norms, we can have a marketplace of ideas.  Parents who are upset about inappropriate content on YouTube should send their kids to watch videos on a site with higher standards. YouTube will never improve its practices if we all don’t vote with our feet.  A marketplace doesn’t work unless people have alternatives and make smart choices.

Unfortunately, some sites have become so big that it’s hard to find meaningful alternatives.  A dozen of my friends have proclaimed recently that they are quitting Facebook because they object to Facebook’s practices.  That’s great—that’s what you should do if you don’t like the site’s policies. But what’s the alternative?  In our research on grassroots groups, Sucheta Ghoshal and I have found that groups who do not agree with Facebook’s policies and find its privacy features insufficient often still use it to publicize their cause because that’s where the people are.  They’re stuck.

One of the imperatives in the revised ACM Code of Conduct (the first update in 25 years) says:

3.7 Recognize and take special care of systems that become integrated into the infrastructure of society.

Even the simplest computer systems have the potential to impact all aspects of society when integrated with everyday activities such as commerce, travel, government, healthcare, and education. When organizations and groups develop systems that become an important part of the infrastructure of society, their leaders have an added responsibility to be good stewards of these systems. Part of that stewardship requires establishing policies for fair system access, including for those who may have been excluded. That stewardship also requires that computing professionals monitor the level of integration of their systems into the infrastructure of society. As the level of adoption changes, the ethical responsibilities of the organization or group are likely to change as well. Continual monitoring of how society is using a system will allow the organization or group to remain consistent with their ethical obligations outlined in the Code. When appropriate standards of care do not exist, computing professionals have a duty to ensure they are developed.

The impossibly hard problem that follows is: What should we do in response to very large platforms that are integrated into the structure of society and fail to be good stewards? Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren wants to break up big tech, and she may have a point. The implications are headache-inducing.

In the mean time, one thing we all must do is to vote with our feet. To tell platforms who don’t meet our personal standards (Too restrictive of speech? Too unrestrictive? Or just a lousy user interface?) that we won’t use them until they clean up their act. And to support alternative platforms that emerge as they struggle to get started.  The marketplace of ideas can’t work unless there’s an actual, working, competitive marketplace.

 

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