Free Speech on the Internet is a Moderation problem

13 Apr 2023

All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.

George Bernard Shaw

It wasn’t until the infrastructure of the internet became significantly more decentralised and accessible that we started to fully grapple with free speech on the internet. Whilst ISPs and the technology itself remained fairly concentrated (i.e., Web1) the existing rules around speech were easily enforced in most jurisdictions.

The advent of the wider distribution of the internet, especially the much more accessible web 2.0 ushered in by social media and other web publishing tools, changed the online landscape forever. Influential legislation also enabled this expansion. The most important to date was passed by the U.S. Congress: Section 230 (originally part of the Communications Decency Act). It protects Americans’ freedom of expression online by protecting the intermediaries who facilitate it. Given the vast majority of Web2 intermediaries (Google, Yahoo, MySpace etc..) were in the US this became the default stance for most jurisdictions around the world.

This was the moment we saw the world start to join the conversation online and soon everyone realised none of the legislative and societal frameworks we had spent generations cultivating were going to be able to keep up with this new medium of expression.

Moderation is a hard and necessary evil

There is a cost to anything; speech included. There are very good reasons there exists restrictions on what you can say in every country on earth. Although the oft quoted: ‘You can’t yell “fire” in crowded theatre’ is a misconception, it stems from the very real (and ongoing) problem of protecting free speech vs mitigating the harm speech causes.

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, it becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues.

Thomas L. Friedman

The evolution and future of free speech on the internet will be defined by the ability to accurately attribute the cost vs reward for that speech.

The much maligned Facebook moderation model has been proven, over time, to be more and more a leader in the moderation problem as many of her critics have successively tried, and failed, to tackle the problem of providing a free speech web platform whilst also trying to mitigate harm.

The Facebook Oversight board is, IMO, the best solution yet for open and fair content moderation.
So good in fact Elon Musk, after long criticising Facebook moderation policies, almost immediately backtracked that criticism on becoming the owner of Twitter and said they’d institute a copy of Facebook's Oversight board.

Not to say that Facebook has been able to navigate content moderation well. They are the leaders in the space but it’s not through a series of successes. They’ve faced very valid criticisms over the working conditions of the small army of human moderators they use.
Even though they’ve invested more than anyone else (aside from vast sums the Chinese government is spending) they still haven’t been able to mitigate things like genocide by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya people in 2017, much of which was enabled through Facebook.

Elon Musk’s Twitter is a great example of how online platforms can be censored for profit and vanity as we’ve seen the “New” Twitter not only caves to government censorship demands, but also alters content distribution based on Musk’s own personal demands.

Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.

Noam Chomsky

Elon Musk, unwittingly, revealed just what a ‘no-win’ endeavour content moderation is when he released the Twitter Files, a trove of documents meant to prove Twitter was engaged in a conspiracy to suppress right-wing critics. Unfortunately for Musk they instead highlighted just how difficult it is to decide on what to censor and what to not. A problem Musk’s Twitter is still struggling to find a solution to.

It’s not only Musk’s Twitter finding out ‘free speech’ is harder than it looks.

The many free speech social media platforms which have launched in recent times have struggled with content moderation.
Each was billed as an alternative to the content moderation policies of the large players in the space e.g., Google, Apple, Twitter etc. but the same free speech protecting platforms have been revealed to be heavily moderating content on their platforms. In a lot of cases more harshly and inconsistently than the platforms they are supposedly offering a “moderation lite” alternative to:

Free Speech is not cost-free

Totally free speech often leads to huge costs and few rewards, and the costs are often not borne by the actual authors but by wider society. 8chan is the case study of the vast negative societal impact from a completely no-holds barred approach to speech on the internet.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

BULB has clear content guidelines.

Even Solana based, censorship resistant Solcial, has an extensive and (by its nature) restrictive content moderation policy. Not all speech is free on Solcial. Nor should we ever reasonably expect it to be.

In contrast someone like Mirror, is offering a much less featured product, but one in which content is much more un-censorable and decentralised as it’s minted directly to the blockchain (Optimism, an Ethereum Layer 2) as an NFT and to Arweave (a decentralized storage protocol) on creation. The marketplace for your Mirror content is anywhere its Writing NFTs can be traded.

I believe Solcial, BULB, Mirror and other blockchain technology content platforms, offer a way forward for better accounting for the cost vs reward impacts of speech online.

The blockchain grants individuals real ownership of their digital assets which means they are able to fully capture the value those assets produce: both positive & negative. Web3 publishing platform are building bespoke economies for that content to enable the true value be determined by the market.

An online world where we have open, fair and decentralised marketplaces for our digital lives is a positive evolution of the current online world we live in. Designing those marketplaces is the task now given to those building in Web3 and it’s a very important task for society as a whole.

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

Søren Kierkegaard

Follow me on SolMedia


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