Information Distribution In The Age Of Algorithms – (Part 2 – Freedom Of Speech & Expression)

Freedom Of Speech & Expression

Though the fate of the once mighty private and governmental media companies remains a mystery, current technological developments have now matured enough to make some unforeseen consequences blatantly obvious. Whilst the list here is ever growing, I will (in this set of writings) focus on implications of the nature of the business model in regards to what this space has metamorphosed into. When I say digital space, note that I am talking about the backbone internet infrastructure in its entirety. Not only the most common foe in the dialogue (various social media platforms), but also the backbone ISP’s that tie it all together. In a world where weakening net neutrality rules are rapidly becoming a reality for millions, it’s important to keep these 2 issues combined. Whether its platform X censoring your otherwise granted right to freedom of speech and/or expression, or your ISP (be it broadband or mobile carrier) arbitrarily deciding what will traverse within the pipes of its network infrastructure, it is us (the consumers) that are the losers in the end.

The 2 issues that have become increasingly problematic in this paradigm are free speech, and the artificial alteration of peoples worldviews on a mass scale (often unknowingly) simply as a consequence of doing business. Somewhat ironically, the previous issue actually plays right into this issue. More on that later.

I will start with freedom of speech and expression. But first off, some house cleaning.

There are many people who run around calling themselves Free Speech Absolutists. Speech is considered to be of the utmost importance, period. At the risk of committing the straw-man fallacy, I am forced to seriously question if many of these people have actually followed the logic through to its conclusion.

Part of it is my observation that few things as nuanced as this have rational conclusions along the fringes of ideology. But the biggest factor is that I simply can’t square the circle as required by the absolutist position. I am not sure if the end result of absolute freedom of speech and expression is really worth all of the seemingly overlooked (and woefully understudied) ramifications of such speech. This does not stop me from behaving as an absolutist in my encounters with the world at large. However, the way I operate in both the digital and the real world is hardly comparable to the most obvious example to cite. The zealot sitting atop the extremely influential soapbox.

Until this position becomes more based in researched conclusion than in reactionary ideology, I can not give it the light of day. If forced to slap an identifier on it, I would probably say Free Speech Agnostic. In a world of greyness, forced black and white interpretations are rarely helpful.

Not that this has much bearing on this context of free speech and expression, anyway. However, it is related (as I will demonstrate in the following paragraph).

The growth of the digital space as a permanently embedded extension of both our personal space AND the public square runs into the fundamental problem that is privatization. The vast majority of this infrastructure is owned by private for-profit companies. Thus, you are generally not the owner of the content (or data) you generate or the space you inhabit. You are, in a sense, a renter. Paying for your spot in the machine with the most valuable currency of the modern era. . . your data.

Having said that however, the data bit is another issue altogether (potentially for another piece). What is more important here is the TOS or the digital equivalent of a rental agreement. It outlines all of the do’s and don’t s of participation within the proprietary ecosystem in which you currently reside. Which is generally not an issue if you are just a run of the mill person sharing cat memes and recopies. However, it becomes a big issue if you are, say, Alex Jones or Milo Yiannopoulos.

Is it ethical to allow such damaging figures to amass such devoted followings? Again, I don’t know how to answer that question. However, I am definitely reluctant to hand that task off to an opaque entity with a documented history of getting it wrong. An entity which could theoretically turn against any narrative if given the right market conditions.

When it comes to solutions, this is another area in which free speech absolutists tend to leave a person wanting. When pushed, many tend to just play the utopia card (“This is how it should be!”).

Indeed.

However, Bernie Sanders (and others) have been singing that tune about the private for-profit healthcare system for DECADES. When literally billions of dollars are at stake, it will always fall on deaf ears.

Others suggest mandated enforcement. A few of my far left role models even promote socialization as an option (absorbing private social media platforms into the public sector).

I can’t say that I like either option, both seeming to present obvious drawbacks. First, because it amuses me to see so many free-market praising libertarian (or Classical Liberal) types suddenly being for so-called tyrannical violence against a sovereign entity. I am not actually TRYING to strawman people . . . it’s just hard not to when so many don’t seem to know what the hell they are talking about.

The other reason I am not a big fan of government intervention is two-fold. First, we should have considered this before privatizing the entirety of the ecosystem. And second, is because we could easily build alternatives to the neutral pablum loving behemoths. All it takes is an investment of some time and capital. Though the time and specialized labour variables are an issue for many busy opportunists, capital is not.

There exists many a podcast (and individual, really) that milks the tit of free speech for every dime that it is worth, for YEARS. They generally don’t actually DO anything, they just talk about it. You know, the free and open marketplace of ideas and all that jazz. This, despite the fact that a suspiciously high number of these supposedly open platforms have a quite visible political bias.


Either way, if even half of the individuals that funded these linguistic circle jerks put that cash into developing and building some form of alternative to the status quo media platforms, problem solved!

Whilst net neutrality is a big consideration here, the internet was designed not to observe international boundaries. If even China can’t keep their citizens 100% away from the prohibited materials as dictated by the regime, one can easily develop the free speech and expression utopias that one desires.

I conclude this, the free speech tangent, with 2 helpful pieces of advice:

1.) Know what you are talking about, free speech absolutists. Reality does not end at your mental shortcomings.

2.) Stop supporting pro-free speech talkers and funding pro-free speech platforms. Whilst my proposed solution does heavily depend on strong net neutrality legislation, it is easily doable. Possibly overnight is someone was so inclined.

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