It did not take long for the founding father to enshrine the right to free speech in the first amendment, a principle that is widely upheld and jealously guarded in the free land.
Some jurisdictions, like Britain, go further. Requiring by law impartial and balanced reporting from news presenters so that the public is not intentionally misled.
But the right to free speech is guaranteed only where the state’s involvement is concerned. It does not necessarily apply to privately owned media, especially internet based media.
Reddit, once a small site popular with techies guided by Aaron Swartz, has now risen to become the 4th most visited website in America, and the 8th most visited in the world.
It is a vast town hall or coffee house where almost everyone meets to discuss all sorts of things, from food, to cute cats being bros. It undoubtedly played a very important role in the recent election, and the platform is a battle ground of sorts for many issues.
However, where freedom is concerned, it has a crucial flaw which in some aspects has turned what once was hailed as an empowering liberator into what some may say is an enabler of the highest level of censorship and manipulation witnessed in the free world.
Undoubtedly everyone is aware of how a once neutral sub, r/politics, turned into a manipulated mouthpieces. While in this space we have all first hand witnessed how r/bitcoin, a once libertarian stronghold, turned into a mouthpiece that happens to favor just one for profit company.
As censorship was not sufficient for r/bitcoin, direct manipulation was used by firstly hiding scores, then changing the order of posts to controversial as default without any announcement to the effect.
Reddit took no action, despite undoubtedly numerous complaints. Why, is not clear. Resources can not quite be the answer because they must be making millions in profits from advertisers and Reddit Gold.
One answer might be the law. If they involve themselves to that extent others may argue they are responsible for user’s content. Like China has done, which has forced WeChat to take a very direct responsibility for anything posted on their platform.
The free world should take the opposite path and declare they are not responsible even if they do get directly involved in many ways. We would argue they should go even further and impose the right of free speech on providers of public spaces, such as Reddit and Twitter.
Because in many ways Reddit can be a government. As can Twitter, the 8th most visited website in America and 13th in the world.
If the right of free speech does not extent to such very public platforms, they would be free to act as king makers in numerous issues. We can even imagine these platforms silencing the public in favor of dictators themselves, under the guise of whatever pretext.
— Brian Fabian Crain (@crainbf) October 7, 2017
Reddit in particular stands out because it enables censorship by allowing anyone to co-opt a popular subreddit and then change the rules as they please.
Even for subs neutrally named, we can imagine for example r/unitedkingdom being limited to only news about Germany, or only news that affect UK and Germany or China, or really whatever the top moderator might like, including only news and discussions about ice creams.
If the top moderator of r/bitcoin, for example, wished, the subreddit could be limited to only news about litecoin, or doge.
It would be ridiculous, of course, but it is in many ways what has happened. And since the name suggests the sub is about bitcoin, a new user might well think that litecoin is actually bitcoin in a mesmerizing asylum of sorts.
That is why we prohibit censorship from state actors. Even though in a censored world all know the ridiculousness of the situation, the new generation is in effect brainwashed.
There is no reason why these corrosive effects of censorship would be limited to only state acts. Reddit’s inaction has turned that platform into the most manipulated and censored space on the internet which is an aberration for all freedom loving people.
Twitter is different, and in parts it’s why it has increased in popularity. It does not have a king that decides what all can discuss in a sub town hall or coffee house, with users instead able to follow other users, creating a timeline and your own town hall of sorts.
It does have some defects. Conversations are difficult to follow, so lacking sophisticated nesting. But it does offer greater liberty in some ways.
However, it is not difficult to manipulate. Something that isn’t necessarily limited to Twitter as the rise of the internet as a media platform has also given rise to disguised advertising whereby you can purchase services that provide you with thousands of “fake” individuals whose sole purpose is to pretend they are in favor or against something, thus attempting to sway public opinion through the word of mouth effect.
Blockstream's modus operandi is not particularly hard to copy. It's just so cheap and shortsighted. #bitcoin
— Rick Falkvinge (@Falkvinge) October 7, 2017
These services are not illegal, but perhaps they should be because they are an engagement in deception for gain at the expense of others.
For example, Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party, received 5,000 retweets and 5,000 likes in 30 minutes to prove a point. That these services are easy to buy and very cheap.
Undoubtedly there have been studies of the effect of such manipulations and we expect them to conclude what is common sense. It works for some, it doesn’t for others, with new users more likely to be swayed than more experienced platform users or those that have some higher level of knowledge in some aspects.
But whether it works or otherwise is beyond the point. It’s deception, and where it is used for gain it might amount to outright fraud, thus perhaps there should be some penalties.
Their enforcement would be difficult, but that might be irrelevant. The law would clearly communicate that the public deeply disproves of such methods. If there should be such law that is. We can’t form an opinion before engaging in a public debate.
But we do have little doubt that the first amendment should be extended to internet companies because now they perform a crucial role of facilitating public debate which necessarily must be free from outright censorship and explicit manipulation.
Otherwise, the corrosive effects of these new methods greatly limit freedom and the right to free speech to the extent their continued popularity can be called an aberration.
While another potential answer might be the building of new censorship resistant tools as many in this space are trying to do. Something that now is needed as a matter of urgency if we are to preserve our freedoms in this century.