London Interdisciplinary School ©2019

The Fine Line Of Free Speech

400 hours of content are uploaded to Youtube each minute and a billion hours are watched every day. Internet companies are expected to remove extremist material within an hour of it being flagged, but firms struggle to meet these targets.

Develop a regulatory strategy which aims to contain the problem, without enabling discrimination or empowering oppressive regimes.

01. Ethics

The branch of philosophy that focuses on 'ethics' is concerned with studying and/or building up a coherent set of moral 'rules' by which people ought to live. The theoretical study of ethics is not normally regarded as being necessary for us to conduct our everyday activities.

Nevertheless, sometimes, the vicissitudes and complexities of life mean that our everyday ethics is put to the test. If we try to apply our everyday notions of right and wrong to problems like palm oil, straightforward answers are not always forthcoming. We need to examine these questions in more detail; and we need theoretical frameworks that can help us to analyse complex problems and to find rational, coherent solutions.

02. Sensitivity To Fairness

We are careful arbiters of what’s fair. Violations of fairness can be considered grounds for reciprocal action, or at least distrust. Yet fairness itself seems to be a moving target - what’s seen as fair and just in one time and place may not be in another.

This plays particularly hard when deciding where to draw the line on free speech. Many views start as extremist before they become mainstream. Ideas that were once considered radical are now considered fair, such women’s right to vote or abolishing the apartheid system in South Africa.

03. Machine learning

AI is part of our daily lives. This technology shapes how people access information, interact with devices, share personal information, and even understand foreign languages. It also transforms how individuals and groups can be tracked and identified, and dramatically alters what kinds of information can be gleaned about people from their data.

The very same way in which machine learning can be used to tackle issues such as hate speech, also raises serious concerns over freedom of expression.

04. Tragedy of the commons

The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who continues to consume it directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits.

Whether free speech can cause a tragedy of the commons is not incontrovertible. However, overcoming a tragedy of the commons involves regulating consumption - and regulating speech is highly controversial.

05. The Lindy effect

The Lindy effect states that future life expectancy is proportional to current age. Obviously, this does not apply to living things. A 20-year old will likely outlive a 50-year old. But, allegedly, the opposite is true for nonperishable things like technologies and businesses. Every year that passes without extinction increases their future life expectancy.

The Lindy effect helps us determine which human behaviours people are most likely to continue to engage in, and which speech platforms (e.g. social media) are likely to survive.

06. Intangible economy

What’s new about today’s economy is that many of our best ideas remain intangible. The ideas are valuable, but they do not take physical form. For example, Apple owns virtually no physical assets. It is its intangible assets - integration of design and software into a brand - that creates value.

It’s difficult to create rules for assets that are intangible - especially when your asset is something like a search engine. Google might be able to afford novel policing solutions, but smaller companies may not have the same resources.

07. Regulatory Capture

Regulatory capture is a form of government failure. It happens when a government agency operates in favour of producers rather than consumers. Regulated industries maintain a keen and immediate interest in influencing regulators, whereas ordinary citizens are less motivated.

As a result, even though the rules in question (such as free speech laws) often affect citizens in the aggregate, individuals are unlikely to lobby regulators to the degree of regulated industries.

08. Red Queen Effect

The Red Queen Effect means we can’t be complacent or we’ll fall behind. To survive another day we have to run very fast and hard - we need to co-evolve with the systems we interact with.

Any mechanisms put in place to filter out extremist content online will cause the content to evolve to pass the filters. In turn, this will cause the filters to evolve (and so on). Designing a system for improving the filter, rather than simply designing the filter, is essential.

09. Asymmetric Information

Sometimes, in a transaction, one party (party A) will have more information than another party (party B). This can lead to a number of inefficiencies and issues, like party A exploiting party B.

For example, someone uploading content online will typically know whether said content is extremist. They will also be able to conceal this, putting the platform at a significant disadvantage.

10. Bottlenecks

A bottleneck is a point of congestion in a production system (e.g. an assembly line or computer network) that occurs when workloads arrive too quickly for the production process to handle.

Given the high volume of content uploaded online every minute, introducing human moderators (or even using machine learning) will likely lead to bottlenecks. These will also need to be balanced as volumes fluctuate.

11. Second Order Thinking

First order thinking is the process of considering the intended and perhaps obvious implications of a business decision or policy change. Second order thinking is the process of tracking down and unraveling the implications of those first order impacts.

This sort of thinking is particularly important when considering problems, like free speech, which have such a deep and wide impact on society.

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