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The Internet and free speech

12 January 2021

I recall, way back when the internet was still new and shiny, the power it created in terms of a vehicle for free speech was both welcomed and embraced.

How amazing was it that we had this computer-based communications system over which no single entity had control and through which you could exchange thoughts, ideas, opinions, beliefs and knowledge by way of a keyboard and screen.

It was pretty obvious, right from the start, that this thing was going to change the world for the better.

But did it?

Well off course when you jump forward several decades to today, we find that the Net has become an integral and essential part of most people's lives.

How, for example, could anyone make it through an entire day without being able to watch funny cat videos on their smartphone whenever the urge overcame them to do so?

Okay, I am being flippant, but the reality is that we do rely heavily on the Net to provide communications, information, entertainment and a raft of other services that would be either incredibly expensive or just downright impossible without it.

Anyone who recalls the early "dark days" of telecommunications remembers when mum and dad would have to take out a second mortgage on the house just to make a three minute toll-call to the other end of the country. Contrast that to today, where unlimited trans-global communications including video calls are now available for no more than the fixed cost of internet access and you'll see why we love the Net so much.

Unfortunately, like most things, the Net has a good side and a bad side.

Even back in the early days it was used as a transport and publication mechanism for lots of unsavoury and downright illegal material. Usenet was a hotbed of dissent, piracy and pornography, and you didn't have to look hard to find such material. Perhaps the only thing that prevented authorities from clamping down early and hard was that until the late 1990s, the internet was largely ignored by everyone except academics and geeks (and pirates and porn-enthusiasts).

However, once the Net became mainstream, the music industry soon woke up to the illegal activity, as did the movie industry a little later when it actually became practical to stream or download large video files.

Even though the illegal porn and piracy was being squashed whenever it was uncovered, free speech was still largely unfettered and remained one of the coolest things that the Net enabled. After all, the Net originated in the USA which was "the home of free speech".

Move on a few years though, and things are changing very rapidly indeed.

Last week we discovered that Parler, a "free speech" alternative to Twitter is being forcefully dismantled.

Both Google and Apple have said they don't want the app in their app stores and now Amazon is pulling its servers from under the feet of the company.

What was Parler's crime?

Well apparently it's been instrumental in fomenting hate and violence, particularly in respect to the recent riots in the US capitol.

This is a really tricky situation for those who believe freedom of speech is a basic human right. You see... one man's free speech is another's hate-speech.

Need proof?

Just look to the recent outbreake of WOKEness in the world.

"Black Lives Matter" is free speech but, according to a great many, "All Lives Matter" is racist hate-speech because it ignores the discrimination against blacks.

People have lost their jobs for using their right to free speech to make the statement that "all lives matter".

As I said, one man's free speech is another's hate speech.

So who gets to decide what's good and what's bad?

Is it even anyone's right to make such a decision?

Given the present state of the Net, I believe we really do have an insurmountable problem here.

When the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon and the other tech-giants start deciding what is and isn't free speech we grant them huge power to shape the minds of the public and we know that there's no use to power unless you abuse it. Through its YouTube platform Google is already distorting the public's view of the world and it has even been so blatant as to acknowledge this openly. If you publish a video with views that are in contrast to Google's own reality, your video will either be deleted or at best, de-ranked such that it is unlikely to be seen.

let's be quite clear about this... we're not talking about videos that contain any form of illegal content, we're talking about videos that may simply challenge established thinking. When you reflect on how many times the establishment has got things wrong in the past, isn't this a very dangerous situation -- the suppression of free speech and differing opinions?

I said the problem was insurmountable and perhaps it is.

If we remove all censorship then the feeble-minded amongst us may be radicalised by those with evil intent. If we start censoring stuff simply because we disagree with it then it is the end of free speech completely. And there simply isn't enough resource available to objectively censor everything that is posted to the internet so any form of such censorship will be somewhat arbitrary and based on commercial rather than moral imperatives.

I miss the good old days of the internet... when you could say whatever the hell you wanted because all the rest of the people using the platform were smart enough to sort the wheat from the chaffe themselves.

Where to from here do you reckon?

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