Policing the Web

The InternetLately there has been a lot of talk about policing the web – about keeping terrorist organizations from benefitting from the web, but also about cutting down on hate talk and other kinds of undesirable speech on social media. It seems to me that all attempts towards regulating speech on the Internet will instantly run into the proverbial slippery slope.

Certainly it would be hard to find anybody who doesn’t want to take down web sites that are the direct mouthpiece for ISIL and on which they make claims for terrorist attacks or directly solicit others to make attacks in the west. President Obama was said we need “high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”

While the US war against ISIL is still undeclared, since we are spending billions to fight them in Syria it makes sense that we wouldn’t give them free reign on the web.

The president isn’t just talking about public web sites for ISIL, but rather their entire online network for communications, money-laundering, and all of the other activities that are on the web and which make it easier for them to operate. I think we should categorize what the president has in mind as making cyberwar against ISIL in the same manner we are making real war. I can’t imagine being against that.

Meanwhile, I have been seeing similar discussions about social media. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, was quoted in the New York Times saying we “should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media — sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment.”

The idea of the US blocking the web from a handful of worldwide bad actors like ISIL, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram is the sort of thing that can be decided as part of a national defense strategy. I personally see nothing wrong with the US government using cyber techniques to neutralize groups that clearly mean us harm.

But where do you draw the line after that handful of examples? For every bad thing said on the web by these international terrorist groups there are just as many totally repugnant things being said by domestic groups who spew hate, racism, and a call for rebellion against the US government. It’s hard sometime to see the difference between what the worst of them say and what ISIL says.

If it’s okay for the government to block ISIL web sites then is it just as okay for them to block sites for domestic radical militia groups, the KKK, or neo-Nazi groups? And if that is okay, then what about the next in line – groups that promote blocking abortion clinics or those who say that people should stop paying taxes? It seems to me that no matter where you draw the line there is going to be a group that is just barely over that line, and it is always going to tempting to block the next one up.

Worse, we aren’t discussing just blocking the web for groups with repugnant beliefs – but also people. The web is a place full of the disgruntled, the disenfranchised and the crazy who say all sorts of nutty and repugnant things. We have the freedom in the US to believe whatever we want as long as it doesn’t cause direct harm to somebody else. And there are people with some of the most unbelievable beliefs you can imagine.

But when Eric Schmidt talks about making a hate and harassment filter for social media he is talking about blocking people, not groups. Of course, companies like Facebook are private companies and they can choose to allow or disallow anything they want – that’s their right. Facebook already quietly blocks a number of things like nudity. But it would be a big step for them to start somehow monitoring content and to ban, banish, or delete conversations that might be considered as hate speech or harassment. It’s really easy to see the slippery slope in this, and I suspect Facebook would lose a huge number of subscribers if they go too far with this. Are algorithms really going to be able to see the difference between hate speech and satire?

I personally like living in a society that values free speech. People should be able to say any ridiculous or repugnant thing they want – and then live with the consequences. I think that hate and prejudice are the most scary when they are hidden under a rock and hidden from the light of day. I much prefer a world where the racists can openly be racists so that we all know who they are. I hope we don’t make the mistake of going too far down this slippery slope.

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