When it comes to free speech, I find it very hard to argue against it. Normally, I hold a range of views as valid. The issue of free speech is different for me. Valid arguments against free speech are inciting violence or direct harm. Anything else is authoritarian and ends up harming society in the end.
The Population as Authoritarian
Historically, people were able to say whatever they wanted until they completely offended their societal norms. For most people, those norms were for small communities. You should not offend your co-workers, your neighbors, or people at your church. No one was listening on the level of a city, much less at a country or international level. You had to really say something horribly wrong and be in a position of importance to draw the ire at a city level or beyond.
Today, I can say something that is perfectly acceptable for everyone I am in direct contact with and still have a major problem. If I offend someone with any kind of a platform (that is basically everyone due to social media) they can make my life extremely hard.
If any ideologically motivated part of the population decides I have offended them deeply they can make my life quite difficult. Whether that population are social justice activists, 4Chan, or communists they can do things to make me regret what I said.
This is quite scary and unnatural. It causes people to censor themselves willingly in the same way that people would under the secret police in the Soviet Union. Having your public life trashed is not as bad as being sent to the Gulag, but the threat is nearly the same. You must comply or be punished.
Companies as Authoritarian
If I were running a company, I would want to avoid being authoritarian. The reasons to censor a user on your platform should be quite limited. If a customer is stealing from me, I would want them gone. Someone causing damage would also be tossed out. If I had a model like Airbnb, people would just receive negative reviews if they did things that were unsavory. The problem would take care of itself.
It is clear that companies like Facebook have no problem being authoritarian. Why make it so that users can filter their own content? It is much “better” to just ban users who say things that will offend some.
What Banning Means
This precedent isn’t good. Today we are targeting white supremacists. This doesn’t mean they are inciting violence, which would be illegal. They are usually caught saying things that are offensive to most of society but easily ignored. Oftentimes, the best thing to do with those things is to confront them directly. Banning a user is the exact wrong answer.
I have a simple way of dealing with these things. I ignore the people who are saying the things that are pointless. If I feel like they are acting in good faith, I confront them.
The idea for Facebook is that content that Facebook doesn’t agree with should not appear on their website. This puts them into a nasty position where they now are responsible for the content on their site. It is relatively amazing to me that they want to be in that position.
In theory, if I used Facebook secretly for something illegal they might be held responsible. They make it obvious they are willing to read your posts in some circumstances. This is usually only when those posts are reported. They also are open about the fact that they have machine learning capabilities that can read all posts.
Alternatives to Authoritarianism Within a Company
A company should give users the tools to control the content that they see. Users will be willing to tag things. Combine this tagging with machine learning and moderators. It gives you a simple way to say you don’t want to see a certain type of content.
It is definitely not what these companies want. They see authority as the best way to sell advertisements and to keep eyeballs on the screen. If it is easy for me to click I never want to see any content pertaining to Donald Trump again, it hurts a company like Facebook. I am less likely to see them as my source for “news.”
This is the way that things should work, and it is quite simple for us to do today. We have many examples of things being tagged by a community or by machine learning. We have historic examples with things like Yahoo where manual curation of the whole of the web was attempted.
Where We Are
It is frustrating for me to see where we are. I don’t fear the government censoring me. The government isn’t the censor of today. I fear the companies and individuals that can so easily make my life more difficult.
The government is something that can make my economic life very difficult. There is also a non-zero chance that SWAT sends a flash bang through my window and then shoots me in the face. The only reason for SWAT to be there would be someone I pissed off online, though. They don’t like what I say, so they send SWAT to kill me with a false report. That is pretty good censorship.
That is the world we live in.