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DL Seminar | The New Irony of Free Speech

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

By Bharath Satheesh | MS Student, Cornell Tech


Illustration by Gary Zamchick | DLI Chronicler

Conventional wisdom states that, by dramatically lowering the access barriers to speech, the Internet has provided a solution to the twentieth-century problem of expressive inequality identified by Fiss and others. However, the digital age presents a new irony of free speech, whereby the very system of free expression that provides more expressive capacity to individuals than ever before also systematically diminishes their liberty to speak. Moran Yemini talks about the importance in liberty of free speech and the various factors that impede liberty in favour of capacity in his talk on “The New Irony of Free Speech” at the Digital Life Seminar on the 07th of March.

Tech mediation today involves a deep fabric of people, information, technology and society. Moreover, while technology stayed silent for a major part of the twentieth century, it no longer serves as a neutral instrument and instead influences us constantly. Yemini claims that technology not only helps us perceive the world but also gives us guidelines on what we can and cannot do. For instance, we are able to store data in particular formats, work from home and buy things off of the internet but are limited by 280 character tweets or by the 512GB SSD space on our MacBooks’. Further, technology also helps shape the future and mould our path telling us where the world ‘needs to be.’ A classic example of this impact can be seen through the advancement of military technology and the new array of capabilities that make our countries safer and more vulnerable simultaneously. By building out advanced weapon systems that can pinpoint with superior accuracy, we not only isolate our targets faster but also fall prey to attacks from otherwise peaceful neighbours and otherwise foreign powers.

A contemporary example of the impact of technology can be seen through the Russian meddling in the United States presidential elections of 2016. Russian propagandists managed to buy Facebook advertisements and target large groups of American citizens. They then proceeded to show various groups ads that enraged or shocked citizens and persuaded them to take extremist stands and avoid bipartisanship. Although the country was already turning into a mosh pit of contradicting ideologies with the growth of the tea-party movement, the perpetrators managed to amplify the underlying polarisation between the Democratic and Republican party and create a rift that broke the country apart. A recent example that demonstrates this power of technology would be the creation of opposing rallies set-up online through Facebook events that were setup online by a Russian group. Real people not only showed up to support these rallies but also failed to realize the lack of any core group of organizers. It was only later that a team of journalists managed to uncover crucial pieces of evidence that helped isolate the malefactors. While online events are just one of the many examples within the sphere of journalism, it is nevertheless powerful and demonstrates that technology as (seemingly) harmless as Facebook groups helps frame the three hundred million strong democracy that is the United States.

The example of election meddling raises many important questions regarding the democracy of the so-called freedom of speech. As Yemini argues, while technology has enhanced the validity of traditional approaches when it comes to freedom of speech, it has impeded on its liberty. Technology today has mediated lack of capacity giving everyone a voice but has intruded on the liberty that comes with the freedom of speech. Yemini also brings up an interesting contrast between liberty and the freedom of liberty and brings to light John Rawls ‘s comparison of the same. He goes on to add that liberty has always had priority over the actual worth of liberty. In fact, traditional constitutional theory claims that the right to free speech precedes the distribution of opportunity.

Expressive capacity, conventionally considered external to freedom of speech, has now become an integral component. This makes freedom of speech broader than ever before and blurs the distinction between liberty and worth. Changes in freedom also come with new consequences. For instance, if you can do something about a situation, you are now responsible to act accordingly. Similarly, taking technology away from people needs more scrutiny than providing that technology in the first place. This means that for gen-z and late millennials’ born into the post-internet era, there is no true distinction between liberty and freedom of speech. Another interesting change is the blurring of lines between the mental capacity to choose and tangible capacity to act. The person talking and the person listening had different freedoms before. That’s not the case in today’s technology-infused era.

Yemini then raises the pivotal question of whether people today enjoy more freedom than they did before the internet era. He goes on to argue that people in fact don not necessarily enjoy more freedoms today than they did before the rise of technology. He calls upon the support of six forces to bolster his argument. His first argument talks of the interference of state and private entities in order to curtail freedom of speech. An example of this intrusion could be the recent repeal of net neutrality rules by the FCC, thereby prioritizing specific content relevant to internet providers over other content. This hinders opportunity to individuals by biasing bandwidth towards platforms and individuals with an abundance of resources and capital. Yemini’s second argument speaks to state encouraged private interference, creating a “governance-by-proxy” scheme that tends to persecute minorities and fringe populations. Further with the advent of CDNs and cloud infrastructure, data is centralized and closer to users in the content that is shared. To make matters more complicated, cloud services also set ground rules both by architecture and interaction. He also explains that there could be multiple modes of interference that exercise power through deceit and manipulation.

We also witness the concatenation of new media platforms as we see speech facilitation platforms concentrate more than they did in the 20th century in the social media platform and internet service provider space. Further, the tussle between lack of anonymity and freedom of speech makes for interesting shifts both in policy and in technology platforms. Mark Zuckerberg, announcing Facebook’s shift into privacy is one such example of a media platform shifting between privacy and its bottom line. Finally, Yemini also talks about the lack of inviolability in todays landscape with the notion that people are no long responsible for preventing wrongdoing as long as it occurs infrequently.

I came out of talk with the sullen conclusion that, while technology offers us an extended capacity to speak today, it does not correlate well with the ability to speaking freely. The plethora of bad actors in the system create friction that hinders any liberty that technology mediated freedom of speech offers. It turns out that free speech isn’t free. Smell the irony yet?

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