How Not To Regulate Social Media
Don’t Undermine Democratic Values in the Name of Democracy

To say that digital technology has disrupted society is already a cliché. Yet we are only just starting to grasp the radical break we are facing with respect to our legal institutions and norms.

Published on: December 12, 2017
Eileen Donahoe is Executive Director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
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  • QET

    While the caution is welcome, I still detect an underlying belief that there are appropriate restrictions on speech and that devising them is the proper business of “policymakers.” This I cannot concur with. I reject the idea that today’s social media and digital communications generally present some new and unique threat. In the Founders’ generation, the proliferation of printing presses and partisan newspapers, broadsheets, etc. enabled the same sort of polarization and presented the same dangers to their polis as the Internet does to ours. Those men thought it through and decided on unqualified freedom, of both the press and of speech. They could easily have qualified those freedoms, but chose not to, and as a result, the USA became what it is. Far from unregulated speech being in “tension” with “democratic processes,” the Founders correctly understood that unregulated speech is an absolutely essential precondition for democratic processes.

    Freedom, like politics, ain’t beanbag. Free people bump into and bruise one another in the exercise of their freedom.

    And I will raise here the same point I have raised in response to other similar TAI pieces. One presumes the writer of this piece must have read a great many of the communications alleged to be “hate speech,” or “fake news” or “Russian meddling” etc. Yet one does not doubt she believes herself to be completely immune from the “pernicious effects” of such speech. Regulation, policy–these are not required to protect her, because her understanding is so Enlightened already; she can see right through all that. Not for one moment was she deflected off her I’m With Her path during Campaign 2016. No, it’s the rest of us poor saps who are too unenlightened to know when we’re being meddled with by those devious Russian bots, us saps who were With Her until taken in by a clever Russian troll factory. Yeah, no. Unless and until a writer in this vein comes forward and admits to having been herself duped out of voting for Hillary because of something she read in a RT article posted to Facebook (or equivalent), then I will regard all allegations of “foreign disinformation campaign intended to polarize American political discourse” and the like as mere pretexts (and flimsy ones at that) for indulging the writer’s own urge to control what the rest of us are allowed to see, hear and think.

    But if people are determined to sic “policymakers” on this “social problem,” let them make their first foray against “malign actors” against the NYT, WaPo and CNN, who are responsible for more “fake news” and disinformation than all Putin’s troll bot armies combined.

    • Boritz

      Exactly the right view of new media. At least one of Gutenberg’s presses was smashed for being a tool of the evil one or some such which led directly to his decision to print the Bible to defuse that argument.

    • D4x

      QET: Thank you for another eloquent rebuttal to the stealth campaign by the ‘Enlightened Wilsonians’ of TAI, whose disrespect for America’s Founders, history, the U.S. Constitution, is consistently deployed. My assumption is they know they have educated two generations of pliable voters, and journalists, without critical thinking skills. The “malign actors” are in academia, entrenched by tenure. It is the most insidious plot in human history ever scripted.

      • QET

        You are too kind.

    • Gary Hemminger

      The citizen’s stupidity cannot be regulated away. It is what it is.

  • Paul Lies

    Trying to regulate social media is a fools errand anyway, at least in America. I can see two primary reasons reasons why.
    A) It is extremely easy, and getting easier, to cover your tracks, change your Geolocation, IP address, DNS address, delete your tracking cookies, and many other things. You can use these techniques and tactics to exist and persist, even as a truly lowly troll, on all of the big tech sites. However, that’s not necessary anyway because there are alternative platforms to virtually all the big text sites already.

    B) even when somebody slips up, or doesn’t know any better to use encryption and anonymity means, The regulation has to be backed up with real consequences. At that point you have to ask yourself if you want to see those consequences, and then if the answer is yes how far do you want to take it? Do you want to give up 30% free speech, or 50% or so, maybe, and be like Europe where you get fines and spend the weekend in jail for a mean tweet? Just want to go full bore communist Chinese and arrest dissidents and make them disappear and sell their organs when you kill them? I really don’t know. These are questions need to be asked and answered if you’re going to do it anyway.

    • FriendlyGoat

      “Someone” is going to impose rules. It looks like that will be nobody but the owners of the various facilities, to their own liking and interest. Zuckerberg, for instance, can influence the workings of Facebook in limitless ways with respect to Facebook itself. He has in the past, and will in the future, no doubt. We are learning, belatedly, that the “free speech” of society (and their side effects) in this sector are at the discretion of a very small number of facility controllers.

      • Paul Lies

        that’s right. And the alternatives crop up as soon as a sufficient [really just a small] number of users tire of Zucks censorship or TOS changes. Indeed, that’s precisely what happened in just the last two or three years. For my standard, I look at the comment section to determine if it’s being unduly censored. If the comments are all over the place, and include some genuine trolls, well I surmise that the host is pro free speech. If I determine that the host is censoring things other than direct threats of violence [illegal], porn, etc., then I know they are anti-free speech, and I report their site to the relevant actors so that’s 10x or even 100x times the number of trolls flock there to pay them a visit. I wouldn’t want to deprive a censor of things to censor, after all.

        • FriendlyGoat

          TAI doesn’t censor me as yet, but then again, I don’t yell AT their material as much as some do here (even while mostly being the village oddity). As for social media other than comment sections, I never joined any of it and never will. I’d rather pick my own news, for instance, than have Facebook suggesting what it thinks I might like.

      • Gary Hemminger

        Finally FriendlyGoat says something I agree with.

        • FriendlyGoat

          You never know when Zuck might wake up more than you had in mind. He knows FB screwed up monumentally.

  • Gary Hemminger

    The problem is not foreign powers using it to disrupt our democracy, it is the fact that our own citizens are complete idiots because they get their news from these crap platforms.

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