Monday, August 15, 2016

"Freedom of Speech" as a right actually has a definition that includes a kindness obligation

We need to start holding websites, particularly social media websites, responsible for the failure to uphold the "kindness" obligation that is part of the definition of the right of free speech and expression.

We need to do so particularly when the owners of the websites have become billionaires by failing to meet the kindness obligation.

Controversy over abusive behavior on the internet is beginning to erupt. Most recently this piece appeared on BuzzFeed News “A Honeypot For Assholes”: Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment which begins with the explanation:
For nearly its entire existence, Twitter has not just tolerated abuse and hate speech, it’s virtually been optimized to accommodate it. With public backlash at an all-time high and growth stagnating, what is the platform that declared itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party” to do? BuzzFeed News talks to the people who’ve been trying to figure this out for a decade.
Perhaps in this article the most significant paragraph describing the history of these billionaires gives us a sense of a level of arrogance and ignorance in the evolution of social media on the internet:
Working with Alexander Macgillivray, a die-hard free speech advocate who was then a Google attorney, Blogger made a core principle of the universal right to publish, despite outside criticism. “We don’t get involved in adjudicating whether something is libel or slander,” Goldman told Forbes in 2005.
This is a Trump-like approach to something that has become lost in "conventional wisdom." "Freedom of speech" is a cherished American right ... except, of course, most American's have no idea what it is. You are basically ignorant if it comes a shock to you that freedom of speech is a government granted and legally limited freedom that comes with obligations.

So without repeating all the research and details offered at the Wikipedia page, I'll just quote the summarizing words:
Freedom of speech is the right to communicate one's opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship.

Governments restrict speech with varying limitations. Common limitations on speech relate to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, fighting words, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, political correctness, public security, public order, public nuisance, campaign finance reform, perjury, and oppression. Whether these limitations can be justified under the harm principle depends upon whether influencing a third party's opinions or actions adversely to the second party constitutes such harm or not.
In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

You'll notice that this is all about government. Our "cherished American right" is about the protection of speech from government restriction although the Supreme Court, as explained by Wikipedia, "has recognized several different types of laws that restrict speech, and subjects each type of law to a different level of scrutiny."  The most well-known type of exclusion was enunciated by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

Wikipedia also explains another concept:
The term freedom of expression is sometimes used synonymously, but includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.

The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states that "everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice". Article 19 additionally states that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals."
Just to make it clear, Article 19 of the ICCPR reads as follows:
Article 19
  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
  3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
    1. For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
    2. For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
In other words, at no time has there been some societal grant of freedom of expression to any person "through any media of his choice" without placing on that person "special duties and responsibilities."

If there is one word that can be used to generally define those special duties and responsibilities, that word is "kindness" meaning a behavior marked by humane characteristics reflecting a pleasant disposition and concern for others.

At no time has there been some law requiring any private sector publisher, internet service or other media provider to define and engage in the protection of free speech and free expression, particularly to allow speech and expression not only devoid of kindness but filled with hatred and harm.

Newspapers and magazines in the 20th Century prior to the internet selectively printed articles and letters to the editor. And many still do today. If you felt your message wasn't getting out there, you could have your own book or newspaper or flyer printed and distributed, all at your own expense.

Again, protection of free speech and expression is a societal activity mutually engaged in through government, including the courts which we seem sometimes to forget is a branch of government. It is not defined through individual action particularly when that action is motivated by profit.

It takes a significant level of arrogance for those involved in providing a web site to believe that their role is to define and assure free speech and freedom of expression. Today that kind of arrogance can be found only in "Silicon Valley" - meaning among newly rich tech folks who have as a primary motive for daily living making as much money as possible, a motive that colors how they define free speech and expression and the special duties and responsibilities associated therewith.

Arrogant techies wave as a flag Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (a common name for Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) that granted providers and users of the internet certain immunity from liability for anything someone else puts on the internet through them.

But Congress when adopting the Act included the so-called Good Samaritan provision which also protects the same people from liability for restricting access to certain material or giving others the technical means to restrict access to that material. In other words, immunity still allows for kind behavior.

There is no private sector context for the term "free speech." Employers have no obligation to let you say whatever you want in the workplace. I have no obligation to let you into my home so you can say whatever you want to me.

Websites like Twitter or Facebook may have immunity from legal liability for whatever the "assholes" post or tweet.

But the Good Samaritan provision is there to allow the billionaires who run those web sites to indicate to us how they balance making money against the "special duties and responsibilities" that should cause them to reduce their wealth ever so slightly in the name of kindness by limiting the activities of the "assholes."

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