Hands up: who loves freedom of speech? By our count, roughly all of you now have your hands waving about in the air. And why wouldn’t you? Free speech is a cornerstone of any modern democracy and arguably the most important provision in the US Constitution.
But just because we all agree that something is awesome doesn’t mean that it’s going to be around forever. Right now, free speech is under assaultacross the world. And unless we do something to defend it soon, we’re gonna find ourselves living in a world where the “free” part of free speech is only ever used ironically. Here’s why:
10. The War On Online Comments
You may have noticed that the Internet is a pretty nasty place. If you don’t believe us, feel free to go on Twitter and start sending out, say, pro-feminist or anti-Islam messages and see how long it takes for a lynch mob to form. But there’s recognizing that an environment is toxic, and then there’s attempting to sterilize it with a flamethrower. Right now, big Internet companies are choosing the latter.
Take the popular comment system Disqus. The company recently announced it was going to start censoring hate speech on its platform by deleting posts it deems “toxic.” In practical terms, this means that a shady algorithm will be removing reader comments from sites like Listverse without any input from our moderators or editors.
This is, to put it mildly, insane. It’s one thing for a site owner to decide what they will allow on their own site; it’s another for a comment platform to make that decision for them. Debates on controversial topics risk being censored because some biased algorithm deems something “inappropriate.” Then there’s the fact that it’s not Disqus’s place to delete inappropriate stuff in the first place. The First Amendment explicitly defends stuff most people would class as hate speech. If we truly believe in free speech, that means believing that even the worst viewpoints have a right to be aired online.
9. Assaults On Anonymity
In 2014, the Internet group Anonymous doxed a whole bunch of KKKmembers, releasing their identities online. People across the political spectrum cheered. Those who didn’t focused on the danger of accidentally outing an innocent person as a Klansman. But precious few spoke out about the real danger of doxing. By taking away these dumb racists’ right to express their dumbly racist opinions anonymously, the hackers were imperiling free speech for us all.
Multiple US Supreme Court rulings have asserted that the right to anonymous speech is covered by the First Amendment. Three of the Founding Fathers, for example, wrote the Federalist Papers under a pseudonym. Anonymity gives us the chance to criticize the government without fear of reprisal. It lets us publish pictures of Muhammad without worrying about being gunned down in the street.
Doxing endangers all of that. It’s a growing threat in our online world, but actual doxing isn’t the real problem. It’s how we respond to it that really matters.
If we act like it’s cool to dox Klansmen, Gamergaters, outspoken feminists, or anyone at all, we’re signaling that some people don’t deserve anonymous speech. That’s a slippery path to go down. It means people will stop saying what they truly think for fear of their identity being outed. When we’re scared to speak our minds, we no longer have free speech.