Facebook has stepped in it, and in doing so has somehow managed to accomplish the impossible: Mark Zuckerberg has unified both the political left and right against one common enemy.

Facebook has received condemnation from liberals who have added the social media giant to their long list of reasons why Donald Trump is now President of the United States. The far-right is infuriated by the perception that liberal-leaning tech giants are shoving their ethics down society’s throat.

In the US, there is a conversation about how to approach Google and Facebook in the context of the country’s First Amendment, a legal defence of free speech that is largely irrelevant in Asia.

What is relevant in this part of the world is the question of whether or not the tech giants have an ethical (or even legal) obligation to regulate online hate speech.

Someone who values stability and calm may say ‘Yes, we can’t tolerate racism online’ while those who see value in (peaceful) conflict would argue, “No, the best way to fight hate speech is with more speech”.

The problem is both sides are wrong.

Regulating the internet

Let’s take the first argument: Facebook and Google should regulate speech online to facilitate understanding amongst people of different backgrounds.

Sounds nice right?

The major problem here is the algorithm, and whether or not it is capable of deciding what gets approved.

We have spent the last decade believing Facebook’s algorithm was a masterpiece of engineering. Whether you love or hate the product, we all respected the power of its algorithm.

But over the last year we are discovering that we may have been wrong. What if the algorithm is neither benevolent nor evil? What if it is just incompetent?

Remember, this is the same algorithm that last year blocked the picture ‘Napalm Girl’ — one of the most iconic photographs in history — due to concerns over child pornography.

A report in Slate this week highlighted a case in which a Facebook advertisement was blocked over concerns it promoted a hateful event. The problem is the group is called ‘Portland Stands United Against Hate’ and the event was meant to organise the community against a far-right provocation group called Patriot Prayer.

The event was specifically designed to promote togetherness and community, but thanks to context it got caught up in the algorithm and was banned.

separate report from ProPublica found people could target advertising towards people who expressed an interest in “how to burn jews” and “jew hater”.

Closer to home, the two most important stories in Asia have also felt the long-arm of Silicon Valley tech giants.

Rohingya activists are complaining that reports of government-led ethnic cleansing are being removed by Facebook. Whilst over at Twitter, the company is leaning on ‘newsworthiness’ to keep North Korea war mongering tweets from Donald Trump online.

The point is, maybe these tech giants just aren’t good at this? One of the ‘common knowledge facts’ of tech is that sometimes a company grows so fast it can’t “grow up”. Promoting inclusion is fantastic with 6 or 7-digit user numbers, but once 2 billion people start using the platform, the Kumbaya, “let’s bring the world closer” attitude is no longer applicable.

We forget that Facebook and Google run into the same growing pains that troubled Uber.

There is one case of online regulation that seems to be working, but a major reason is it is grounded in law, not algorithms. In Germany, the country has set up a series of laws to regulate how people talk about Nazism. It allows sober, academic discussions but bans anti-semitic hate speech, making the salute and denying the holocaust.

For social media, the country fines companies it deems do not make an effort to remove hate speech generated by its users.

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There is hope the German model could act as a standard for how the world approaches tech giants in the future.

And yet, while that sounds good, we could all become China, who just banned WhatsApp because Xi Jinping needs to consolidate power at the 19th Party Congress.

Free speech absolutism

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

-Justice Louis D. Brandeis

For free speech defenders, this is the crux of the argument. The best defence against hate speech is more speech. Censoring ugly speech does not mean the ideas disappear.

But speech is also an organising tool. A major phenomenon of modernity is social media has allowed anti-semites in Asia to connect with racists in America and organise to create concrete social change. When Nazi-sympathisers marched in Charlottesville — ripping a hole in the American psyche — most of those people were not actually from Charlottesville (or even Virginia).

They were organised through social media whereby a student from Nevada can march alongside a white supremacist from Massachusetts in Virginia.

It allows fringe thought to seem more important because if everyone who believes the most out-there ideas attends a rally, it will still be a large group of people.

One of the most interesting test-cases for free-speech absolutism is a new social media platform called Gab. The company is built on the ethos that Google, Facebook and Twitter are corrupted and are carrying the banner for liberal ethics and morality.

It also has become a safe haven for Nazi-sympathisers, racists, homophobes and misogynists.

In a segment on last week’s On The Media, journalist Brooke Gladstone sat down with Utsav Sanduja, the Chief Operating Officer of Gab, for a fairly aggressive interview. Sanduja composed himself well and while Gab might be personally unseemly, his logic was neither offensive nor insidious.

He agreed with Justice Louis D. Brandeis; free speech is the only way to a just and fair society for everyone.

Except, he ran into one ethical knot. The Islamic State.

Gladstone asked Sanduja that, according to the ethos of free speech absolutism, the tech giants should give free reign to ISIS to say whatever they please. Sanduja deflected the question, and in doing so revealed that Gab is not about free speech, just about free speech that he personally agrees with.

Is Gab defending the little man against the tyranny of Facebook? Or is community of racists, whose speech may eventually lead to real-life harm and pain?

Or, (and this is the correct answer), is it both?

Like the ‘Germany solution’ to online censorship, there is an alternative to free-speech absolutism that would be acceptable to most people:

Force tech giants to re-classify as media companies.

Because of the power in media, the industry is subjugated to regulations across the globe. Even the countries we can call the bastions of journalism have quite a bit of regulations (and the open secret is it is more about advertising than reporting).

If tech giants reclassify as media in the US, they still will be fairly free to say whatever they want, but there will be certain rules about transparency.

Which is why, unfortunately, even if it did happen, it would take a long time. The Facebooks and Googles of the world would dispense their immense war chest to their legal department to fight to remained classified as tech companies and not media (even though, especially for Facebook, everyone knows they are the latter).

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Thanks to the importance of the internet in our daily lives, the free-for-all Wild West attitude of the early days is largely dead. The next step is not to revive the Laissez-faire environment of pre-Google online activity, but to acknowledge what the internet is and adjust accordingly.

Unfortunately, it does not seem like anybody knows quite how to handle the role Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon should play in our lives. This year, it seems the public has figured out that we need to  protect ourselves against the increasingly powerful force that is the tech giants.

The problem is nobody has a clear solution.

Yours truly included.


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