Ever since SOPA and PIPA blared across the internet early this year, there has been consistent discussions about free speech on the internet. Over the course of 2012, we have seen the confusion of net neutrality, U.S. Elections, issues sprouting from Reddit and now Google’s opposition of UN’s regulations. Free speech and freedom of unrestricted access has been the principle issue of 2012.
These issues are vast and cannot be covered under a single post. But I’ll attempt to dilute the issues into a central theme and offer a broad guideline towards handling such issues.
SOPA, PIPA, net neutrality focuses on information delivery. Lawmakers are worried about the control and legality of information on the internet. They want certain forms of policing to be doable. Law enforcement is nothing if slow and inefficient and that is what SOPA and PIPA attempted to correct. The problem with the infamous two is they went overboard. It was almost equivalent to giving any firm the right to act as the law. But the issue remains – How do we keep the internet from turning into a chaotic mess that disregards ownership and legitimate use of information?
Net Neutrality is a little different but stems also from information delivery. Basically, you do not want any government or firm (read: ISPs) to curate the content that you see. Because ISPs can do behind the scenes deals with content creators, there exists a high possibility that viewing content under ISP A will yield very different results from ISP B. In the eyes of purists: The internet should be the same no matter how you access it. But can this work? What incentives do a firm have to preserve an untouched version of the internet? Obama’s stance on keeping the internet free of curation basically won him votes from the tech community.
Freedom of Speech
Reddit came into play as an icon of free speech. It’s rise to prominence came to full fruition in 2012. But Reddit turned against its own principles when freedom of speech came to haunt it. When I say free speech on Reddit, I mean free speech in every sense. Reddit has sections (subreddits) for everything and anything. This includes news, politics, humor and also pornography, sections dedicated to voyeuristic photos of children, among other socially distasteful interests. But hey they are all for free speech isn’t it?
The same site that campaigned for net neutrality and freedom of information decided to remove links to a legit source of information.
No. When a huge contributor to the above mentioned distasteful sections was unmasked, Reddit decided to shut down links to the site that unmasked that contributor. The same site that campaigned for net neutrality and freedom of information decided to remove links to a legit source of information – basically because that source was showing the world the darker side of Reddit and tying username to the face of one of its shadiest contributors. It was a hypocritical move and Reddit realized it, reversing its decision within 48 hours – but the damage was done.
The issue of freedom and neutrality can be summed up in a question to each side of this debate:
- Those that seek to control and curate: Are your arguments sustainable? Can the internet really be controlled? Who are you to decide for the masses?
- Those that seek freedom: Will you sing the same tune when the freedom of others encroaches on yours?
Both are idealistic goals that will never be achieved for simple reason – There is no self sustainable incentive that will drive the mechanism above. Firms have no desire to be net neutral and individuals have no desire to keep freedom of speech the moment they are on the receiving end of somebody else’s freedom of abuse.
But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution to this. The end goal is to keep the internet as a vibrant place where everyone can view and participate without restriction or curation bias. The solution is transparency and accountability.
The solution is transparency and accountability.
Laws should not dictate what firms can do and cannot do. They should be left free to operate but must declare the content deals they sign that could change the neutrality of information services that they provide. Let consumers decide with their dollar vote if they agree with the direction of the firm.
Individuals should not be barred from doing as they like. Give everyone freedom but make their real names appear next to it. If one desires freedom to do as he likes, then one shouldn’t shy away from the responsibility of doing as he wants to. This measure is difficult to implement, but when done, it is a fair yard stick for all users.
The main mechanism behind the two pronged solution above is simple: Let society decide on its own who are the firms or individuals that are doing right and who are the ones that should be shut down or prosecuted. Let such a responsibility not fall in the hands of the few in power may it be economic, judicial or political.
Laws and statues are made not to control or suppress but to facilitate an efficient society. The law should never come under the spotlight. The moment it does, it has failed its duty to the people. Of course, it is overly idealistic to believe this can but implemented in short notice. But within the technological sphere and in light of these broad issues – the solutions at hand can be simple and fair if we take a good look from beyond ourselves. Transparency and accountability is the way forward in the long run.