Each month we’ll be discussing one of the issues we consider core to the Podium mission of restoring trust and accountability to the internet. And we’re starting with the biggest.
Freedom of Speech is one of the most vital protections in the modern world. And it is being rapidly diluted and corroded by those who distort its meaning for their own ends.
Let’s start with the basics. Freedom of Speech — in its pure legal sense — is defined as follows:
The power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty.
Some would argue that a person who receives a ban from a social network has had their Freedom of Speech restricted.
Others would respond that — since the action did not originate from a government and since no one has a right to a platform — the issue of Free Speech does not even arise.
Both of these people are wrong.
Limiting the protection of Free Speech to government actions is arbitrary and ignores the core purpose of the Right:
The Powerful may not use their power to silence the Powerless.
This applies to governments because they are, by definition, powerful. It should also apply to organisations, individuals, companies — including social networks — because they too can be powerful.
So anything goes then? People can say whatever they want on social media and suffer no consequences? Right?
Any discussion about human rights has to centre on Power and — by extension — Responsibility. Each freedom we are guaranteed comes with a corresponding responsibility and defiance or abdication of that responsibility should result in consequences. The more powerful you are, the greater that responsibility and the greater the consequences.
Let’s take the most basic right — Freedom itself.
We all have the right to make our own choices and decide our own actions. But that doesn’t mean we can steal things or kill people. So where is the line?
Freedom is the line.
We are all free to take whatever actions we choose, provided those actions do not restrict the freedom of another individual.
As soon as our actions threaten the freedom of another, we forfeit some portion of our own freedom. That forfeit must be proportional, but it cannot be in kind — or our system of justice simply becomes “an eye for an eye”.
And this applies as much to Freedom of Speech as it does to any freedom.
So you can say whatever you want… unless doing so threatens another individual saying whatever they want — or, indeed, unless it threatens any individual’s freedom in general. And the more powerful you are, the greater this responsibility becomes.
This is where we get into territory that some people would like to pretend is controversial. Privilege is power. Whether it’s white, straight, male, cis, religious — if you are a member of a powerful group in a society built by and for that group, you inherit some of that power.
And the power dynamic here is vital.
A powerful group (or member thereof) can — even unintentionally — use that power to silence a relatively powerless group (or member thereof).
But the inverse is not true. A powerless group cannot use their power to silence a more powerful group. That’s not how power works.
And it is this which the people crying “controversy” want to ignore. When they claim they are being “silenced” they are (self-evidently) not actually being silenced. But they cry “censorship” to manufacture a false equivalence between their power and that of those they oppress.
When a white person says something racist (consciously or otherwise) they wield the power of their race to diminish the power of the race they are targeting and reassert the power of their own. In doing so, they make it harder for members of that race to be heard. And this is true of all discrimination.
Racism is censorship.
Homophobia is censorship.
Misogyny is censorship.
Islamophobia is censorship.
Transphobia is censorship.
Xenophobia is censorship.
Ableism is censorship.
Biphobia is censorship.
Antisemitism is censorship.
Prejudice is censorship.
Discrimination is censorship.
Oppression is censorship.
If you use your power to silence those with less, you threaten their Freedom of Speech and so forfeit your own.
All such hate is, of course, derived from ignorance — wilful or otherwise. And Freedom of Speech is the ultimate enemy of ignorance because it exists principally to guarantee our access to Truth.
Every decision we make is informed by the knowledge we have. If we have false or incomplete information, our ability to make decisions is impaired. If our ability to make our own choices is impaired, our freedom is restricted.
Which is why Freedom of Speech does not convey protections for dishonesty and disinformation — because both restrict people’s freedom.
No one chooses to become misinformed. Once deceived, they may choose to ignore information that would correct their ignorance — but, by definition, that can only occur after their perception of the world has been distorted.
This warped version of Free of Speech — where anyone can say anything and suffer no consequences — is no different to the complete absence of Free Speech. A society where any truth can be buried beneath an avalanche of lies is ultimately no different to a society where the truth is directly suppressed.
In the absence of accountability, the only restrictions on power are those we impose on ourselves. And who will restrict themselves most? The people with principles and morality? Or those without?
This is the fundamental flaw of traditional social media. By empowering everyone without accountability, social networks only empower the unscrupulous exponentially.
However, the reverse is also true. If a well-meaning person is misled and subsequently shares false information, they should not be sanctioned equally to someone who has led an incessant campaign of discrimination and harassment.
In such a system, the consequences are either too lax — thereby removing accountability; or too severe — thereby silencing the innocent. Consequences must be proportionate or they become a threat to Free Speech themselves.
But who decides where that balance falls?
With most governments — especially in the western world — people can exercise some degree of democratic control. If our leaders create laws antithetical to human rights, we can collectively choose new leaders who oppose those laws.
The same is not yet true of social media.
But it will be.
Podium will be democratic — users will have the power to collectively change the platform Laws. Podium will be proportionate — the sanctions for violating the Laws will scale with the severity of the offence. Podium will protect Free Speech — if someone restricts yours, they will be held accountable.
The issues we’re grappling with are vitally important — and we want to get this right — so if you have any thoughts or feedback, please don’t hesitate to let us know:
- Tag us on Twitter @PodiumNetwork or send us a direct message
- Email us firstname.lastname@example.org
- Or leave a comment below