Free Speech

Was This the Decade We Hit Peak Free Speech?

Speech was more varied and vibrant than ever before—and then the backlash began.


Speech has never been freer than it was in this decade. But only if you take a broad view of what free speech means, and only if you look at the right parts of the decade.

There is an argument that says free speech isn't just a matter of stopping direct government censorship, nor of keeping the state from indirectly chilling what we say. True freedom of expression, the theory goes, requires a broader culture of free speech—a society where art, information, and commentary face fewer restraints of all kinds, not just the restraints that have the government's guns behind them.

Now, I'm not crazy about conflating the concept of free speech with those bigger, messier social questions. But they are undeniably linked—a culture hostile to open expression is surely more likely to pass legal limits on speech—and those big social questions are worth thinking about in their own right. So let's roll with it. If by "free speech" you mean the capacity and willingness to speak, not just a shield from the institutions that could forcibly stop you from speaking, then the early to mid 2010s arguably saw the freest speech in history.

As the decade dawned, it was cheaper and easier than ever before to create and transmit a text, an image, or an audio or video recording. That transmission, in turn, had a bigger chance of reaching an audience. People didn't waste that opportunity: Both the volume and the variety of widely available speech exploded. Whole new media ecosystems appeared. Budding musicians did an end run around the record labels, sketch comics did an end run around cable TV, and YouTube DIYers did an end run around licensed plumbers and repairmen. In the political world, the Overton window widened and a flood of oddball ideological tribes poured in—some of them rather unappealing, but that's how it goes with unfettered expression.

That in turn provoked a backlash, and for the last several years we've seen a series of efforts to clamp down on all that uncontrolled chatter. There have been heightened calls for censorship from the left, right, and center, sometimes directed at new sorts of speech (bots, code for printing weaponry) but usually aimed at targets that feel familiar (sex-work talk, terrorist propaganda, hate speech, marchers wearing masks), sometimes so familiar that they're moldy (pornography, Russian subversion). Beyond that, there was a broader feeling of brittleness around all that unfamiliar or unpleasant expression; even critics who would never call for censorship sometimes went overboard when attributing ill effects to speech they disliked. Meanwhile, the biggest conduit for all those emerging ecosystems of expression—the internet—seemed to be growing not just more censored but more centralized, more surveilled, more controlled. That was true not just in purely online spaces but in the dissident movements that at times use cyberspace to organize and communicate. Around the world, it became clear that it wasn't just protesters who were imitating and adapting each other's tactics; the regimes that they were protesting watched and learned from each other too.

All of that raises the question: Did we just witness Peak Free Speech? Will the first half of this decade be remembered not just as a time when speech was less fettered than ever before but as a time when it was less fettered than it will ever be again?

Freedom vs. Tolerance

I may have rushed too quickly past the question of what a "culture of free speech" is supposed to be. It's not a term that everyone uses the same way. The people who throw around that phrase often claim, or at least assume, that certain sorts of speech are more conducive to open expression than others. Some of them suggest that speech should be more civil; others think it ought to be more oppositional. Most of them want the speech, or at least the speakers, to be tolerant of other points of view.

But freedom and tolerance simply aren't the same thing. Both are valuable, but they're often going to be in tension with each other.

Civil libertarians need to be clear-eyed about that. Speech has always included gossip, shaming, and other tools for enforcing conformity. In the past those sorts of speech may have been confined to a single village or middle school, but now they have a global reach. Some testy "free speech" debates of the last decade have really just been battles between different collections of culture warriors, each circulating misleading screenshots as they try to shout the other side down. That may look like illiberal intolerance, but it also looks like a lot of lively speech. It's not a sort of speech that I like, but some form of it has always been a part of public life and it isn't likely to go away anytime soon.

The more important issue, at least as far as the future of free speech is concerned, is whether the institutional environment makes it easier or harder for intolerant people to muffle the speech they don't want to hear. And this is where the most significant change happened. From the '70s through the '00s, America's electronic media grew ever more decentralized and participatory. Not so in the '10s, as the social media services that made publishing so quick and easy also brought more of that publishing under consolidated corporate control. The result was the difference between getting kicked off an email list and getting kicked off a social media network: Both may be cases of a private association exercising its right not to give you a platform, but one has a much bigger impact than the other when it comes to whether your voice is heard.

This didn't mean we reverted to the bad old days of just three big TV networks, or even to the 500-channel universe of the late cable era. It was still ludicrously easy by 1990s standards to get a homemade piece of media in front of a substantial audience. But it was also more likely that your homemade media would suddenly be obscured. That might be because you broke a platform's rules; it might be because an algorithm mistook your photo of a nude sculpture for pornography and improperly assumed that you had broken a rule; it might be because you were mass-reported by the sorts of assholes that the rules were supposed to address. (Time and again, a social media company would create a system that was supposed to keep out the bigots and trolls who harass people, only to learn that the bigots and trolls had found a way to turn the system itself into a tool for harassment.) The result was more Brazil than 1984: a control apparatus full of leaks and loose wiring.

Governments encouraged the process, passing mandates that fostered both the proliferation of rules and a sloppy sort of enforcement. Germany, for example, started implementing a law last year that informed platforms that they had just 24 hours to take down "obviously unlawful" hate speech or face a steep fine. Inevitably, this combination of stiff penalties and narrow time windows prompted companies to suppress first and ask questions later, even if that meant excising speech that didn't actually violate the law. (In one infamous example, the nominally anti-racist statute was used to remove some anti-racist satire.) That's bad enough for the Germans, but in a global internet decisions made by the government of Germany—or any other wired nation, from Britain to China—can affect what people around the world can see.

Centralized platforms make the task that much easier. As Declan McCullagh wrote in Reason this year, they offer "a single convenient point of control for governments eager to experiment with censorship and surveillance." A culture of freer speech might require a technology of freer speech—a more decentralized internet with fewer chokepoints, one built around protocols rather than platforms.

The Global Spring

All that said, there is one big reason to think the pendulum may already be swinging back in speech's direction. This year saw an astonishing level of public protest around the globe, adding up to a revolutionary moment on par with 1968. Unrest has swelled everywhere from France to Hong Kong, from Chile to Indonesia, from Iran to Ecuador, from Haiti to Spain. Such movements have already brought down governments in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan. In Bolivia, mass protests preceded the ousting of leftist president Evo Morales and then more mass protests greeted the new right-wing regime of Jeanine Áñez. Here in the U.S., last year saw the biggest strike wave in more than three decades, and we may be on track to top that in 2019.

These movements have been sparked by a wide variety of grievances. Their supporters come from a wide variety of ideologies. They use a wide variety of tactics, not all of them limited to nonviolent speech and assembly. It would probably be hard to find someone who backs every single one of them. But put together, they represent a surge in people's willingness not just to speak out but to take risks to do so. That too represents a sort of culture of free speech, even though many of these regimes have reacted to the unrest with a repression that does not remotely resemble free speech in the legal sense.

Those movements are learning from each other, too: When one of them figures out a way to evade censorship, surveillance, or police assaults, the others take heed. (We live in an era when Hongkongers can be recorded neutralizing tear gas in the summer, videos of the technique immediately circulate on social media, and by October protesters in Chile are doing the same thing.) After a decade of authoritarian governments adjusting themselves to the ways protesters organize themselves on- and offline, the momentum is with the dissidents again as they find ways to adjust their tactics in return.

A decade that began with the rise and fall of the Arab Spring is concluding with a Global Spring. And while that could conceivably end with the most vicious clampdown of all, it's also the best reason to hope that what looked like Peak Free Speech was really just a temporary speech recession.