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Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Death of the Free Speech Ethos in Cyberspace

By: Jacob Mchangama


In 1996, cyber activist John Perry Barlow addressed national governments in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace; a radical call for complete online freedom.

“I declare,” he wrote, “the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.”

In the early 2000s, it seemed as if Barlow’s Declaration was becoming a reality. In 2006, Time magazine named “You”—that is to say, all of us—as their Person of the Year:

It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web.

Social media became instrumental in the toppling of dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen and, in 2010, it was Mark Zuckerberg’s turn to be awarded Time‘s Person of the Year. A couple of years later Twitter confidently declared itself ”The free speech wing of the free speech party.” This commitment to the global spread of radical free speech and openness was specifically informed by the First Amendment. Through the embrace and global reach of Silicon Valley, it seemed for a brief moment as if American free speech exceptionalism would go viral and impose a Libertas Americana upon cyberspace.

But less than a decade later things look radically different. In a prevailing atmosphere of anxiety, the digital promised land has turned into a dystopia of surveillance, disinformation, trolling, and hatred. As evidence of Russian interference in the American presidential election emerged, the platforms once hailed as the global infrastructure of freedom and democracy are now widely seen as the enemies of these values. In April 2018, the New York Times called Zuckerberg “an Enlightened Despot,” and argued that Facebook and Twitter had been “turned into engines of deception and propaganda.”

Democratic governments have responded to these developments with increasingly draconian measures, prompting tech giants to take desperate rear-guard actions that abandon the imperial project of spreading global civil libertarianism online. In 2016, companies like Facebook and Twitter agreed a voluntary code of conduct with the EU under which they have to remove “hate speech” within 24 hours. A similar agreement relating to fake news has also been adopted. Most recently, the EU has announced new laws obliging tech companies to remove “terrorist content” within an hour or face fines of up to four percent of global revenue.

~~~> Read the rest at Quillette.

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