Has there ever been a stickier wicket than the concept of free speech? It's hard to balance in the best of times, but when tech giants and governments get together to decide what can be said, I frankly get nervous. And that's exactly what's happening in Europe right now.
We largely take free expression for granted in the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Europe—but even in the U.S. we can't yell "fire" in a theater and we can't threaten to kill the President (it's a felony). In Germany, Nazi symbols are banned, and in France, a large variety of hate speech is expressly illegal. Most countries in the West have some form of slander and libel laws—and this is just dipping our toes into the vast ocean of abridgments to free speech that permeate societies we otherwise think of as "free."
And don't get me started on the growing trend of precious snowflakes who believe they have a right not to be offended. That's eventually going to lead to nonsense laws, just you wait and see.
Free speech is one of those areas where I am way to the left. The least of our opinions must be the most protected lest we all lose the right of free expression entirely.
Here's how the fourth U.S. President, James Madison, put it:
I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.
Man, did our Founding Fathers have a way with words!
This subject is just as relevant today as it was in the early 19th century. For instance, there's a thing going on in the European Union right now where hate speech is being censored with the cooperation of social media and tech giants.
TechCrunch reported a "Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online" developed in cooperation with the EU, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Microsoft. That Code of Conduct is a playbook for removing "illegal hate speech" from the three social media platforms and "Microsoft-hosted consumer services, as relevant," whatever that means.
We talked about this on Tuesday's episode of TMO's Daily Observations, where our theme was that stopping hate speech is a slippery slope. Today's abridgment is being aimed at radical Islam spewing hate, inciting violence, and recruiting through social media. Tomorrow it could be aimed at anything, from satire to religious commentary to insults against a head of state* to opposition parties to [anything].
This is far from an easy problem to tackle. It's thorny, it's subjective, and the only real guarantee is that everyone will be unhappy, angry, and put-upon.
*Just kidding: we don't have to wait for tomorrow on that head of state issue because it's a thing today, thanks to an antiquated law in Germany being exploited by the precious megalomaniac in charge of Turkey.
Next: China and Shades of 50 Million Shades of Gray
Page 2 - China and 50 Million Shades of Gray
Then there's China, an authoritarian regime where free speech is less than nonexistent. That country exerts tremendous control over what its citizens can see, hear, and say. It's disgusting, in my mind. If you have to keep people from knowing something to maintain control, you're just plain doing it wrong.
I give Google massive credit for pulling out of China rather than submitting to censorship laws in that country. Microsoft and Yahoo! infamously didn't make that same choice at the time, and many other U.S. tech companies operate in China today—including Apple**. To one degree or another, they are all operating within the bounds of Chinese law.
But how different is China suppressing information about Tiananmen Square from the EU (or a corporation) blocking hate speech from ISIS or other hate/terrorist groups? Don't get me wrong, it is different, but the rationalizations from both parties are uncomfortably similar.
Here's a Chinese statement on censorship from 2010:
[China] bans using the Internet to subvert state power and wreck national unity, to incite ethnic hatred and division, to promote cults and to distribute content that is pornographic, salacious, violent or terrorist.
And here's a line from the EU's new Code of Conduct:
Illegal hate speech, as defined by the Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA of 28 November 2008 on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law and national laws transposing it, means all conduct publicly inciting to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.
I realize the intent is radically different, but the stated justifications are uncomfortably similar.
50 Million Shades of Gray
China's laws are aimed at perpetuating the ruling class's grip on said rule, and the EU's new Code is intended to protect people from violence based on their religion or race. In addition, at least one of the EU's targets is ISIS, a terrorist organization outlawed by most Western governments.
That group is conducting war against Europe, the U.S., Jews, and everyone it believes doesn't practice Islam properly. Groups with whom one is at war are seldom afforded free speech rights—but the EU isn't targeting ISIS alone, it's targeting "illegal hate speech."
That brings us back to the slippery slope. I am utterly sympathetic with the goals of these laws and the EU's Code of Conduct, but I worry strongly about where it will take us and how those laws will be misused in the future.
From a tech standpoint, social media companies and other tech companies are at the forefront. These companies are key to communication and the dissemination of information in the modern age. As we continue to grapple with these issues, those companies will increasingly be called on to practice some form of censorship, and it's only a matter of time before it crosses the line from a sticky wicket to repression.
**I should also note that Apple practices its own brand of censorship in all countries via the App Store, a place where a wide variety of content is prohibited, including—but not limited to—hate speech and porn.