Free speech absolutism vs the real world
I had a lovely exchange via email the other day with an American developer where we briefly talked about freedom of speech. It's an intriguing topic for me because it lives at the perfect intersection between technology, ideology and the way human societies actually work. It should be noted—even though it's quite obvious—that I'm not a lawyer and I don't claim to have any particular expertise or profound knowledge on this subject. These are just personal thoughts on the subject from my point of view and I'd be thrilled to discuss it with you if you also have opinions and especially if you're an expert on this topic.
Before I start rambling, I think it's important to have a reference to what the 1st amendment of the United States Constitution actually says since plenty of people—and especially Americans, for obvious reasons—keep referring to it when discussing the topic of online moderation on social media platforms. So, from wiki:
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.
Now, with the reference at hand, I'm gonna say something painfully obvious: social media platforms are not the Congress of the United States and the web is not located in the United States. Shocking, I know. So that alone, makes the argument of "I have freedom of speech!" completely irrelevant and, frankly, quite idiotic. Having said that though, the idea that a platform should "borrow" the 1st as a guiding principle for their moderation policies is certainly intriguing. And I say it while being aware that it's close to impossible to apply it in practice. The beauty of the web, and by extension social media platforms, is its international and borderless nature. I'm writing this blog post in my country and it will live on a server on the other side of the planet, accessed by people from all over the planet. That, is a good thing. We want interactions across the globe to occur. We want open dialogue, we want communication. But while my blog and my digital presence lives in this borderless state, I am very much confined in this lump of meat called a human body that resides in a country with its laws and rules I have to follow. And some of those rules are related to what is and isn't protected in terms of speech. The question now is, if I write something that goes against these rules that exist in my country, should I face the appropriate consequences? What if I write those same things not on my site, but on Twitter? Which set of rules should apply there? Twitter is an American company after all, so should American laws be applied there? Even if "there" means absolutely nothing when it comes to websites that are scattered all over the globe on different servers? Or should Twitter apply Italian laws to me because I am an Italian living in Italy? But how can Twitter even know that I am in fact an Italian living in Italy? I could easily set up an account using a VPN and never reveal my actual location and nationality. Should I then face no consequences? What's confusing to me is this idea that we seem to want absolute freedom of expression AND freedom of any type of consequences. That is precisely NOT how society works.
And I say all this while offering absolutely no alternative solution. Because I genuinely don't know what a good solution to this problem is. It's a complicated issue because humans and society are complicated and it becomes even more complicated when you have millions of people interacting with each other on the same platform. Because there's no shared common ground other than our human nature.
No matter the platform, moderation will always come into play. It's inevitable. It's unavoidable. But how to moderate, and especially how to moderate effectively, is something we can discuss and I think, and hope, that we will collectively come up with a good solution to this problem. Because more communication and more dialogue is always going to be a good thing.