The Danger of Normalising Organised Censorship, Online and ITRW

Giving power to the State to censor is problematic at best

There is no doubt about it. Censorship is being normalised by governments and companies, unwittingly or deliberately, in the fight to stem “toxic speech” online. To be honest, it is absolutely correct to adopt policies that nurture and defend the right to freedom of speech. However, the danger of enshrining something as intuitive as fighting genuine “hate speech” into laws is that you risk expanding said laws through faulty precedents and interpretations. Does blasphemy constitute hate speech for example? What about the election of Trump? Supporting Trump? Cultural criticism?

Is it a right for anyone to offend anyone, regardless of their background or class? I would like to think that is so and that the reason is self-evident: people’s lives are holy but ideas are not. The moment we render ideas and ideologies holy and above discourse is the point where we cease being a free society and more like a theocracy ruled by deified Ideas.

We risk putting our entire free world in an awkward position if we start adopting censorship policies akin to that of China’s Great Firewall. And throwing increasingly sophisticated but brittle technologies like Alphabet’s Perspective ML-based system to fight what is really a human problem will risk undermining what may be a genuine effort to create more perfects spaces for public debate.

Loose “codes of conduct” also aren’t feasible. Look at the European Union’s attempt at getting tech giants onboard the fight-against-hate-speech bandwagon; the policies signed are not legally binding. And despite the EU’s attempt at providing a narrow definition of what hate speech is, tech companies can easily decide to under-interpret, over-interpret or even cherry pick according to the corporate culture in vogue at the time, which is usually some latest iteration of political correctness. The inability of some tech giants to be open about these policies to the point that we have to rely on journalist snoops to bring such things to light compounds the problem.

Who’s definition of hate speech are we dancing to, in other words?

I believe it would be better to decentralise the intuitive policing of hate speech to the community itself. Let the definition of hate speech itself be subject to public discourse. Otherwise we risk creating an enforcement monopoly, either in the form of the State like in China or questionable company policies like “Facebook” and others. The normalisation of organised censorship will significantly harm freedom of speech and it will embolden other nations around the world to justify and even strengthen similar or more draconian policies and laws, all in the name of fighting enemies we know nothing of.