Libertarian History/Philosophy

Wired Thinks Free Speech Has Been Tried and Failed

The ancient authoritarian imperative to restrict speech shows up in a new guise.


John Perry Barlow famously declared that cyberspace, as we used to call it, was, should be, and must remain a realm of absolute intellectual freedom. It is a bitter irony that he died the same month that Wired, which for years celebrated the liberatory power of digital culture, features a terrible and terrifying cover feature deriding "The Golden Age of Free Speech."

The package's polemical point? That free speech has failed us and deserves no particular further respect in this digital, social-networked world.

Wired magazine

From the dark heart of their framing essay, Zeynep Tufekci's "It's the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech":

The most noble old ideas about free speech simply don't compute in the age of social media. John Stuart Mill's notion that a "marketplace of ideas" will elevate the truth is flatly belied by the virality of fake news. And the famous American saying that "the best cure for bad speech is more speech"—a paraphrase of Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis—loses all its meaning when speech is at once mass but also nonpublic. How do you respond to what you cannot see? How can you cure the effects of "bad" speech with more speech when you have no means to target the same audience that received the original message?

Mill's defenses of free expression are more complicated and subtle than the notion that a marketplace of ideas "will elevate the truth." Mill argues as well in On Liberty that grappling with error is all that allows a human mind to remain intellectually active and acute, and that this is desirable in itself.

"Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think," Mill wrote. The search for truth has a value larger than merely getting people to believe what's true.

The theory and philosophy of free expression should not be myopically focused on "the truth." Plenty of expression—some might say the most important expression—are creative fictions that do not express facts about reality, empirical or moral. We must also defend tenaciously the ability to think and express even things we do not truly think and feel and believe, for the sake of exploration and play (even though such expression can undoubtedly aggravate and anger people).

But even if you think ending up at the truth is all that matters—if you are willing to admit you believe truth spoken through broken teeth from the hobnailed boot of authority rings as sweetly as truth spoken through sincere belief earned through free investigation—Mill argued that your ability to grasp the truth of what you "believe" is weak indeed if never honed against the best arguments for opposite ideas. Humanity, he wrote, "ought to have a rational assurance that all objections have been satisfactorily answered, and how are they to be answered if that which requires to be answered is not spoken?" (Jonathan Rauch explained along Mill's lines how gay acceptance and rights were in fact furthered by the fact that people are legally allowed to spew idiotic prejudices and false beliefs about homosexuality, in his classic 2013 Atlantic article "The Case for Hate Speech.")

Tufekci doubts the value of free expression when one cannot guarantee that those striving to counter falsehoods can reach "the same audience that received the original message," a difficult or impossible task when that first communication was "nonpublic." This is supposed to be a freshly sinister aspect of the digital age. Yet never in the history of the debate over free expression was any such guarantee possible. Nor was it ever thought necessary by people who supported (or opposed!) free speech. Tufekci writes as if she is unfamiliar with, say, targeted political direct mail, which has long allowed partisans to gin up beliefs that the "other side" might not even have known existed, much less be able to counter tit-for-tat to the exact same audience. It's pure concern-trolling, holding up a phony ideal of free speech then regretfully concluding that since that can't be reached, any actual and real free speech isn't worth worrying about.

Beyond that, Tufekci offers a series of complaints about speech in the modern era. First, that false claims and faked evidence can be distributed worldwide. (She may be interested in some social science evidence downplaying the existential threat of "fake news" on the internet.) Second, that such things, or anything, might be spread by Russian bots or alt-right trolls. Third, that any information someone spreads might not go as far or to the people they hoped it would thanks to perplexing or opaque social network algorithms. Fourth, that speaking on the internet could lead trolls to harass you, either via computer messages or real-world pranking, including potentially fatal "SWATting." (Laws against actually harming people through things like SWATting need not impact speech as speech.) Fifth, that no larger authoritative body is marking what should be perceived as what, with everything just undifferentiated "content."

"Not to put too fine a point on it," Tufekci concludes, "but all of this invalidates much of what we think about free speech—conceptually, legally and ethically."

Only Good Speech is Good

For Tufekci,

freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it's not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle—a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver.

Is it true that free speech "in the liberal tradition" is merely a vehicle for greater goods, not a good in and of itself? Not really. As well explicated in an essay by Alex Daniel, "Speech Locked Up: John Locke, Liberalism, and the Regulation of Speech," Locke and many Lockeans (such as those who thought a First Amendment to the Constitution was appropriate) believed that "speech was not simply a means to arrive at the truth, but rather it was an absolute right guaranteed to citizens by virtue of their status of autonomous, individual beings living in a free society."

Freedom, blessedly, helps many people live happy, wealthy, fulfilled lives. That is why many people of authoritarian temperament tolerate it. But that sort of "objective" betterment is not the sole reason for liberty. An individual's freedom to choose how to live, what to think, and how to express it is not contingent on a mass of others deciding they are happy with the outcome. It is a matter of an inherent right to be who you are, and to express it. Our culture is suffused with powerful works of art, from 1984 to A Clockwork Orange, that work from a core understanding that something vital and irreducible to our selves and our identities as intelligent human beings is attached to being able to think and express those things we think and feel and believe; that it is a hideous evil to force someone to spout things they don't believe, to suppress who they really are through their view of the world. As human beings, our thoughts and expressions are intimately and ineluctably woven with who we are; squashing or banning or regulating them is as intimately invasive as one can be.

That said, Locke did more than merely huff and puff about rights. He strove as well for arguments that might convince even doubters that laws restricting expression were a bad idea. Notably, Locke argued against statutes barring "religious insult" on the grounds that, as the Oxford political scientist Teresa Bejan writes, "laws against uncivil speech in and around religion were essentially counterproductive."

Locke's argument in essence was, as Bejan put it, that "restrictions on 'offensive' speech encouraged an individual to act as judge in his own case concerning the degree or nature of the offense and then tempted him with the use of the civil sword in punishing the offender. A tolerant society in which different 'persuasions' existed side by side would inevitably be home to many hot tempers, bruised egos, and hurt feelings. Legal limits on religious insult would be impossible to apply impartially and would necessarily invite abuse." (In our secular age, add race/gender concerns to on-the-surface religious ones.)

Tufekci isn't worried about petty things like the human ability to be who we are, think what we think, and express it freely, to forge our identities and worldviews in freely chosen exchanges with fellow free and independent individuals. She's got big tech business practices in her sight:

But we don't have to be resigned to the status quo. Facebook is only 13 years old, Twitter 11, and even Google is but 19. At this moment in the evolution of the auto industry, there were still no seat belts, airbags, emission controls, or mandatory crumple zones. The rules and incentive structures underlying how attention and surveillance work on the internet need to change. But in fairness to Facebook and Google and Twitter, while there's a lot they could do better, the public outcry demanding that they fix all these problems is fundamentally mistaken. There are few solutions to the problems of digital discourse that don't involve huge trade-offs—and those are not choices for Mark Zuckerberg alone to make. These are deeply political decisions. In the 20th century, the US passed laws that outlawed lead in paint and gasoline, that defined how much privacy a landlord needs to give his tenants, and that determined how much a phone company can surveil its customers. We can decide how we want to handle digital surveillance, attention-­channeling, harassment, data collection, and algorithmic decision­making. We just need to start the discussion. Now.

The people to whom expression is clearly and always seen as most dangerous are dictators, who to this day from China to Venezuela to Russia try to lock people up for stating the wrong thing. No doubt Tufekci would insist that the sophistical Wired vision of how to manage the way people express themselves online will have nothing to do with squashing political dissent. But there is a reason why the American tradition has paid at least lip service to "no law." Once the principle is punctured, state power and state interests are quickest to fill the space.

Speech Restrictions Are Always Tools of Power

The most casual gloss on the history of First Amendment litigation in America should make it obvious, especially for Trump- and GOP-haters, exactly how dangerous it is to casually toss aside the principle of legal protection for free speech.

Consider, for just a handful of examples, the Supreme Court cases Gitlow v. New York (1925), involving a man arrested for publishing a revolutionary "Left-Wing Manifesto"; Whitney v. California (1927), involving a woman prosecuted for helping found a Communist Labor Party; Stromberg v. California (1931), involving prosecuting people for displaying a red flag; and Near v. Minnesota (1931), involving prosecution for issuing a newspaper the state decided was merely "malicious, scandalous, and defamatory."

The above limn what letting slip the principle of "no law" tends to mean in practice: state power deciding what people can say, how they can use their symbols, how they can criticize the powers that be, and how they can organize to affect politics.

As Bejan points out, "many academics and public intellectuals would rather rely on the inertia of strong institutional commitments to academic freedom, free expression, and civility while critiquing them into oblivion—only to complain, when we find ourselves hoist by our own petards."

It seems that the likes of Wired, though alarmed by a world of Russian bots and alt-right trolls (which one imagines, though they don't spell this out, that they blame for President Trump) manages to perceive the worlds of media and expression as so ineluctably Theirs—their sensitive, progressive, smart, techno-elite but not beholden to Facebook selves—that they can't see the disconnect between "let us manage expression through politics" and "expressive practices we don't like have handed the government over to dangerous people."

The "deeply political decisions" Tufekci wants to control expression can and will be made by people who do not necessarily share Wired's beliefs or sensitivities, and it is dangerous even on its own terms to call for making such decisions politically.

Wired's editors are sadly not pathbreaking pioneers in this illiberalism. I noted the same phenomenon in a forthcoming book review in Reason's April issue (subscribe today!). Noam Cohen, a New York Times reporter who covered the Silicon Valley scene for decades, presents as utterly uncontroversial in his new book The Know It Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball that one of the greatest sins of digital culture is it does not sufficiently squash speech he thinks deserves to be squashed.

That we must rapidly deploy the powers of state violence against people for saying certain things on the internet, or at least to stop them from saying them, is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom in certain circles, and not just stereotypical "hysterical campus Marxist" ones. What has been lost is any belief in inalienable human rights (except, apparently, not to feel aggrieved or offended by things other people think and say or to see political outcomes shaped by the "wrong" information). That loss is real and serious.

As Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote in Reason's January issue, an alarmingly large portion of American political culture would like to see the end of free speech. Reason has long noted this alarming trend toward annihilating free speech as a cultural and political imperative even in the West, from gay rights activists turning rapidly from heretics to heretic hunters, to respectable journalists scoffing at harmful "speech nuts," to Canada acting on the belief that some attempts at persuasion need to be met with violence, to prominent American press kowtowing to violent threats from Islamists.

The Enlightenment skeptics are happy to remind you that John Milton, one of the founding thinkers of free expression in the West, didn't want to extend full political freedom to Catholics. That's true, that's regrettable, and that's irrelevant to the stunning and life-saving sea change he helped generate in attitudes toward expression. The specific circumstances under which Milton did his thinking are quite relevant to Wired's vague calls for restricting, in some unknown way, how people can use the "publishing" abilities of the internet.

As explained by Vincent Blasi in his essay "Milton's Areopagitica and the Modern First Amendment," the key that makes the highly religious Milton and his debate rooted in ecclesiastical pre-emptive censorship still relevant to this modern debate is he recognized more was at stake than just reaching the truth. "The liberal case for free speech has suffered in recent years from misplaced emphasis," Blasi writes:

Contemporary critics have rightly punctured extravagant claims for expressive liberty made in the name of truth and democracy. Some of these critics, flushed with forensic success, have produced their own…schemes for regulating speech anew, this time on the side of the angels. The Areopagitica suggests, however, that one would have to "sequester out" of "this world of evil" to believe that the power to censor will ever be employed other than in a partial and vindictive spirit. It suggests also that political and social enervation—the collective weakening of aspiration, will, and taste for controversy—is the risk most to be feared from the regulation of speech. Those messages of Milton's dated polemic remain timeless.

Pre-Enlightenment, post-Enlightenment, all too many people genuinely believe that it is only OK to say and think OK things, things that "help democracy" or don't lead to "bad outcomes." The nature of what's OK changes; the overarchingly illiberal attitude remains. Wired at least helps clarify the debate by stating outright that free speech is not a good in itself, but sometimes merely a means to a desired end.