Let's not confuse free speech, truth and the bill

posted by Jeff | Sunday, May 10, 2020, 10:10 AM | comments: 0

If there's anything we can observe about the pandemic, it's that there are an endless number of non-expert opinions about it (including my own). I want to write more about expertise and critical thinking, but today I want to talk about free speech and truth, and who pays for it.

Americans generally value free speech, which often requires that you take the good with the bad. That means tolerating truth that you find inconvenient, or perhaps flag burning in protest. It should be noted that the ability to express things does not mean that it's all truthful. People can say whatever they want, and they can lie, deceive or make things up as they see fit. What's unfortunate is that a lot of people think that because you can do this, all things said hold equal weight in the marketplace of ideas. That is wholly absurd.

Like any important right, free speech comes with responsibility. Even in the US, you can say whatever you want, but it doesn't mean that it's not without consequence. You can be sued for defamation, and metaphorically shouting fire in a theater can get you into trouble with the law as well. Some democracies even limit free speech to exclude things like racism and hate.

The Internet is a vast platform for free speech, but it's important to understand that it isn't "free" in the sense of cost. Those bits you're reading cost someone, somewhere, some money. The blog post that you're reading came to you by way of a service that I pay for. The company that hosts it in turn has to pay the telcos for the connectivity, and the hardware vendors for the equipment.

This brings us to a reality that most don't appreciate: Much of the speech happening, some of it ripe with untruth, happens on the services of private companies. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, they are not exactly the public square you think they are. They're under no obligation to allow all speech to be distributed via their platforms. In fact, we've seen Facebook's Zuckerburg take a lot of heat for selling political ads that are total lies.

Now, they've suddenly opted to enforce "community standards," and engaged in what some call censorship. There are real questions there about whether or not there is any moral obligation for these services to do this, and I'm not here to say one way or the other. What I am saying is that they can do whatever they want, because they're paying the bills. Pretending to be an "activist" and posting something on Facebook isn't the same as standing on a street corner with a sign, and Facebook is under no obligation to allow it. And for the record, we were dispelling racists on web-based forums 20 years ago, and we continue to do so today.

Internet service providers are under no obligation to host lies, conspiracy theories or the dangerous spread of misinformation. Yes, I can see why that might make you uncomfortable, that a company can yield that power (though seriously, with regard to corporations buying influence, where have you been when it comes to challenging Citizens United v. FEC?). I might be inclined to share your concern, but I've never been OK with the concentration of online social interaction on a few gigantic services. If the market decides this isn't OK, and I suspect it will, you can go off and build your echo chamber of misinformation yourself. For now though, don't pretend that you're entitled to say whatever you want on a platform you don't pay for. You're the product, not the customer.


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