Bonum Certa Men Certa

Techrights in the Coming Decade: The Free Speech (Online) Angle

posted by Roy Schestowitz on Jun 24, 2024,
updated Jun 24, 2024

THE Techrights Web site never had to remove an article. In nearly 18 years everything published remained intact. This is something we're very proud of. That's not to say we never issued corrections, but we probably corrected less than 1 in 1,000 articles - sometimes due to mistaken interpretation or something to that effect.

Online, in general, free speech is dying. As more people "go online" the quality of discourse goes down - to the point where Bruce Schneier says (last week): "There has been a lot of toxicity in the comments section of this blog. Recently, we’re having to delete more and more comments. Not just spam and off-topic comments, but also sniping and personal attacks. It’s gotten so bad that I need to do something."

LWN said something similar only weeks earlier.

In IRC, we've had to deal with people saying outright illegal things in recent years. We needed to act and we then explained who was responsible for it. They didn't like being held accountable, as one might expect...

If you spout out stuff like "gas the Jews" in IRC networks, then prepare to face consequences for such "speech"...

Anyway, the nature of online discourse has led to passage of new laws, deplatforming of many people/whole platforms, and even SLAPP. We want to write more about these issues because the dangers prevail and they matter to more and more people.

This isn't the 1990s Web (or Internet, which started in respectable institutions, not some terror groups with access to Wi-Fi). This is 2024. The Web is a mess. As Andy explained the other day in his long analysis:

People talk about "The Internet", as if a singular routable network still exists. It does not. It was a nice idea, but it disappeared ten years ago, replaced by the "Splinternet", divided into smaller interests. It could, in effect, not sustain itself. If we have ever achieved global connection, it was only briefly.

The idea of a universal, common service for the betterment of humanity is an attractive one. It holds within it the promise that we can avoid wars, and solve problems together.

We are coming see computer security the same way, as a kind of commons that raises the wealth and happiness of everybody, and could promise comparable benefits.

Recognition of a universal right to digital security - including not just privacy as freedom from technical intrusion but self-determination, secure communication and control of our data - would seem like a natural progression for humanity at this point in history.

However, in reality there is almost always a tragedy of the commons where uncertainty, greed and ontological insecurity leads to concentration of capability and leaves some group with no "security resources" at all. So-called "surveillance capitalism" is the face of a system that benefits from one group taking away security from another. It is an "insecurity industry".

The "Arab Spring" frightened power everywhere. Free trade without tax and customs borders, and without the control of world intellectual property, trade and economic organisations (WIPO, WTO and WEF) was too much for governments. The disintegration of "intellectual property" was terrifying, not for authors and creatives but for those publishers and "owners" by whom ideas are controlled.

So the Internet was split by nation state and corporate firewalls into silos which keep cultures and groups of customers separate, captive and controlled as chattel. Big social media, within walled gardens, was in fact a godsend and timely solution for authoritarian states.

The Internet was never a thing so much as an ideal. Many of those public interest ideals have been lost to misgoverning and corruption. The power of profit-seeking mega-corporations, mainly from the US, along with a growing realisation by people and governments concerning the negative side-effects of a connected world, have pushed it back. On the surface where ordinary people experience the Internet, the popular vision of globalisation through digital liberation and peer relations seems dead. It will remain dead, or at least unhealed in permanent split state, so long as "security" can be made an issue.

"Splinternet" is the future of the Internet. We already see this in the West, not just places like China and Russia. There are many Russian sites that my ISP prevents me from accessing, even the English language ("We can’t connect to the server at"), so it's clearly a global issue, not just some oppressive nations' localised peril.

Free speech is a fundamental tenet of a free society. We're losing both.

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