Free Speech in the Filter Age

Alexandra Borchardt at Project Syndicate: “In a democracy, the rights of the many cannot come at the expense of the rights of the few. In the age of algorithms, government must, more than ever, ensure the protection of vulnerable voices, even erring on victims’ side at times.

Germany’s Network Enforcement Act – according to which social-media platforms like Facebook and YouTube could be fined €50 million ($63 million) for every “obviously illegal” post within 24 hours of receiving a notification – has been controversial from the start. After it entered fully into effect in January, there was a tremendous outcry, with critics from all over the political map arguing that it was an enticement to censorship. Government was relinquishing its powers to private interests, they protested.

So, is this the beginning of the end of free speech in Germany?

Of course not. To be sure, Germany’s Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (or NetzDG) is the strictest regulation of its kind in a Europe that is growing increasingly annoyed with America’s powerful social-media companies. And critics do have some valid points about the law’s weaknesses. But the possibilities for free expression will remain abundant, even if some posts are deleted mistakenly.

The truth is that the law sends an important message: democracies won’t stay silent while their citizens are exposed to hateful and violent speech and images – content that, as we know, can spur real-life hate and violence. Refusing to protect the public, especially the most vulnerable, from dangerous content in the name of “free speech” actually serves the interests of those who are already privileged, beginning with the powerful companies that drive the dissemination of information.

Speech has always been filtered. In democratic societies, everyone has the right to express themselves within the boundaries of the law, but no one has ever been guaranteed an audience. To have an impact, citizens have always needed to appeal to – or bypass – the “gatekeepers” who decide which causes and ideas are relevant and worth amplifying, whether through the media, political institutions, or protest.

The same is true today, except that the gatekeepers are the algorithms that automatically filter and rank all contributions. Of course, algorithms can be programmed any way companies like, meaning that they may place a premium on qualities shared by professional journalists: credibility, intelligence, and coherence.

But today’s social-media platforms are far more likely to prioritize potential for advertising revenue above all else. So the noisiest are often rewarded with a megaphone, while less polarizing, less privileged voices are drowned out, even if they are providing the smart and nuanced perspectives that can truly enrich public discussions….(More)”.