Pssst! It’s almost a secret, but Britain’s House of Lords wants your opinion about protecting your freedom to speak your mind online

 

Do not let the freedoms of the net wither and die




Choosing to call yourself Baroness Bull, Buscombe or Quin, or Lord Storey or Viscount Colville of Culross makes it seem unlikely that you would be of the slightest use in helping your government to draft policy for the digital revolution. Yet those names belong to actual peers serving on the Communications and Digital Committee of the UK’s House of Lords, which last month launched an inquiry into ‘how the right to freedom of expression should be protected online and how it should be balanced with other rights.’ You could think of their eminences as real life counterparts of steampunk science fiction, with a dusting of retrofuturism.


Even more surprising is the committee’s incisive understanding of what is at stake in the debate about the unprecedented powers the internet has given ordinary people to broadcast facts and opinions across the planet. This is obvious in the record of its first hearing on 24 November, and in the list of questions in its call for evidence.


Strange to say, the request for direct participation by the public — with a 15 January 2021 deadline — has not been published by any well known newspaper or mainstream media website, as far as pG can tell from searching on ‘uk parliamentary committee call for evidence freedom of expression online’. Why are traditional media assuming that we the people have no interest in preserving our free speech rights on the internet?


Those questions, as set out by the committee’s chair, Lord Gilbert of Panteg



In recent years there have been a growing number of controversies relating to the use of the right to freedom of expression online. We hope to hear views from all sides of the debate on the roles that platforms and the state should play in protecting or curtailing what users can say online.



Other questions posed by the committee include:
How should good digital citizenship be promoted?
Should online platforms be under a legal duty to protect freedom of expression?
To what extent should users be allowed anonymity online?
How can content moderation systems be improved?
Would strengthening competition regulation of dominant online platforms help to make them more responsive to users’ views about content and moderation?




The last question on that list is the most impressive. At the first hearing, Jeffrey Howard — who teaches ethics and political philosophy at University College London — had a particularly thoughtful and practical answer:




‘Part of the public debate on this topic has involved the proposal that these companies be broken up by appealing to various kinds of anti-trust arguments. It is, of course, worth pointing out that if the companies are broken up, the resources that they have at their disposal to engage in extremely expensive content moderation is reduced. It is not immediately obvious that that would be an effective solution.


‘It occurs to me that we lambast the social media companies whenever they fail to take down enough content, but the moment they take down too much content there is a scandal on the other side. I do not say that to let the companies off the hook by any stretch of the imagination, but simply to remind ourselves that this stuff is pretty difficult, and engaging in content moderation at scale across countless cultures and countless languages is a difficult business. We need to have patience, given that we are only at the inception of this process in the history of social media platforms.’




To Dr Howard’s answer, pG would add that the problem governments should rank far above anti-competitive behaviour by Big Tech platforms is the modus operandi that has made them so rich and powerful. That ‘business model’ depends on round-the-clock surveillance or privacy invasions — ‘data-gathering’ — that they use to assemble individual profiles deployed not just by them but also by companies who buy these from them to manipulate us. 


This is the source of the trouble. Using regulatory powers to root out or sharply curtail it should be the first order of business. 


Some version of another unavoidably complex question could be added to Lord Gilbert’s list, in two parts: 


Would curbing the surveillance-and-profiling of users by the dominant online platforms diminish the strong incentive that this data-gathering gives them, today, to preserve their users’ freedom of expression? If so, what can be done to avoid any such undesirable consequence?


Of course that assumes that Britain’s government has not fallen as deeply in love with the potential of tracking and data-gathering as governments elsewhere. This could be a leap too far, as much as pG hopes that it has avoided the contagion, and will continue to do so. See: 
Notes on a U.S. congressional hearing: turning antitrust guns on Big Tech will not shield us from Orwellian puppeteering. Why did the politician-legislators choose the wrong focus?’ 

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