Google logo. (Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)

Earlier today an internal Google presentation summarizing a variety of perspectives, including my own, on the state of internet freedom began circulating on the web. The “leaked” presentation was quickly framed by some as a roadmap to censorship and that it demonstrated the company was examining how to suppress certain viewpoints or crack down on internet freedoms. Yet, a closer read of the presentation would suggest precisely the opposite: a company at the center of many of our debates about the future of the online world grappling with the existential question of the modern web: how to absolutely preserve freedom of speech, while at the same time preventing terrorists, criminals, repressive governments and trolls from turning this incredible force for good into a toxic and dangerous place that undermines democracy, advances terrorism, assists fraudsters and empowers hatred? How do we elevate the voices of the disenfranchised and give them a place at the table of global discourse, while not also awakening the trolls that seek to repress them? How do we empower the free expression of ideas and bring an incredibly diverse and divided world together, while embracing the differences that make us who we are? How do we reach across countries and cultures, across languages and landscapes, to have meaningful conversations about the future of our shared planet? Most importantly, how can technology play a positive role in helping facilitate the good, empowering civil discourse, while discouraging the bad, from terrorist recruiting to fraud to toxic speech and trolling?

As someone who writes and speaks extensively on the future of the web and how technology is both shaping society and being shaped by it, I am frequently contacted by organizations throughout the world seeking out my counsel as to where I see trends heading and my own perspectives on what I consider the best and worst approaches to society’s greatest challenges. Thus, it was not at all unusual when I was contacted last year by a research firm to interview me on behalf of an unspecified company on my views on the state of the web today. I had no idea the interview was for Google nor any idea of the broader scope of the research it fit into.

Reading the final report today for the first time alongside the rest of the web, my own take on it is very different than the framing that seems to have emerged in certain quarters. I see not a company charting a future of web censorship, but rather a company in its 20th year reaching out to experts across the world trying to make sense of what the web has become and what its own place should be in that future. To me it is extraordinary to see Silicon Valley actually listening, absorbing and reflecting on what the world is saying about the state of the web. This is the Valley as it should be – listening to its users and understanding the web from their vantage, rather than dictating its own vision for the future of our online world.

Stepping back and looking at the themes of the Google presentation, what one sees is essentially a summary of the state of the web today and the pragmatic reality that in the anarchy of the anything-goes free-for-all of the early web, the darkness began to eclipse the light.

In many ways the early web represented human society without rules, where the darkest corners of society were let loose to run free in a nightmarish dystopia. Terrorists, criminals, trolls, racists, sexists and just about any other form of hatred could run free, wielding their newfound anonymity and audience to unleash all the horror they had historically kept bottled up. Even otherwise ordinary leading figures of society, from politicians to journalists to scholarly elites, transform from Dr. Jekkyls to Mr. Hydes when their hands touch a keyboard, suddenly free to vent their rage at any issue of the moment for all the world to see. Who wants to privately rant to one’s spouse or friend when you can achieve overnight fame with the right viral post that hurts someone so badly they sign off social media for good?

Like any other public forum, the web represents an impossible duality between giving every person a voice and preventing the loudest and most violent voices from drowning out the rest. The web of today is akin to shoving a few billion people into a gigantic football stadium, crammed shoulder to shoulder, handing them each a megaphone and hoping that a peaceful and productive society emerges.

At the heart of Google’s presentation is the question of just what the role of technology firms should be in helping restore the web to a more civil and thoughtful place of meaningful discourse and enlightenment. Reading the presentation, I see not a call for censorship, but rather an existential question of how tech firms can maintain their absolute commitment to freedom of speech, while at the same time stopping hatred and violence. In short, how to give the voiceless a voice without seeing them instantly silenced, how to ensure the light is not blocked out by the dark?

In our hyperpartisan and divided world of today, we tend to see this question as one of politics and beliefs, a fight between censorship and freedom, rather than what it really is: a question of how to place enlightenment before emotion?

Much of this conflict lies in the path Silicon Valley has historically chosen to combat the dark side of the web: targeting ideas rather than the expression of those ideas. I have long argued that the path to a more thoughtful and inclusive web is to fight words rather than ideas. While we may find the views and beliefs of some to be abhorrent and antithetical to all we hold dear or may be confronted with those who wish us harm, the moment we allow emotions to overcome reason, when clinical evidentiary discourse becomes overwhelmed with profanity laden diatribes and threats of violence, we can never seek common ground. When we demonize others rather than seek to understand their grievances, even when those views do not permit our own existence, we lose our ability to see each other as sums of a great number of diverse parts, pieces of which with we cannot coexist and others which with we may find common ground. It is only by looking past our emotions that we see each other as fellow travelers through life, different than ourselves but part of our grand human society. Moreover, as we force society to base its conversations and conflicts on facts, rather than emotions and false narratives, we are able to diffuse many conflicts based on misinformation.

Of course, in a world of infinite information, we can each find “facts” to support our views. But, if the words we speak to each other are clinical and evidentiary, rather than emotional and threatening, we can at the least go our separate ways, rather than be chased by trolls down the information superhighway.

Targeting words rather than ideas allows us to cull the visceral and emotional attacks that dehumanize and destroy our ability to emphasize with others. Moreover, by avoiding targeting ideas, companies can avoid the slippery slope of government suppression that comes with the journey to censorship. After all, for every code of conduct that bans “terrorism” speech, there is a government ready to call any criticism of itself “domestic terrorism” that must be purged from the digital world.

In 2013, Google’s General Counsel David Drummond said it best when he called out the rising tide of state surveillance and censorship, noting that “Governments have learned in what might be the steepest learning curve in history that they can shape this global phenomenon called the Internet and in ways that often go beyond what they can do in the physical world and they’re doing so at an alarming pace.”

The threat of governments exploiting the harms of the online world to usher in a censored world built according to their needs comes out clearly in Google’s presentation, reflecting that internet companies are on the front lines of the desires of governments globally to censor and control the flow of information not only within their own borders, but to all countries, exporting their worldviews globally.

In the end, the threat of government intervention is perhaps the greatest reason of all for internet companies to act now, before the repressive regimes of the world take it over under the guise of “fixing” the web.

Putting this all together, as I read Google’s presentation for the first time today with the rest of the web, I saw a very different picture from how many portrayed it. I saw not a company presenting a vision for global internet censorship, but rather one warning of the dangers such censorship would bring. I saw a company asking the most important question of all: how to preserve the freedom of the web while protecting it from the darkest corners of society and to do so before it is too late and governments take it over. Most reassuringly, I saw a company that was actually listening to the answers it received.



Source link

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here