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Online Freedom of Speech May Be in Peril: Pew

By Richard Adhikari
Mar 30, 2017 2:43 PM PT

Negative interactions on the Web -- trolling, cyberbullying, harassment and just plain nastiness -- have become commonplace, and this situation is likely to remain unchanged or worsen over the next decade, suggests a report the Pew Research Center released Wednesday.

Pew and Elon University last summer polled more than 1,500 technology experts, academics, and business and government leaders on the future of free speech online.

Forty-two percent of the survey respondents expected future online interactions to be about the same as they are today, while 39 percent expected that negative activities would take a further toll. Nineteen percent were more optimistic, predicting that online harassment, trolling and distrust will be less characteristic in the future than they are today.

The survey responses suggest four major conclusions:

  • The atmosphere online will remain negative because trolling is part of human nature, anonymity facilitates antisocial behavior, some of the inflammatory dialog is driven by inequities, and it's difficult to defeat trolling or bad behavior because of the growing scale and complexity of discourse;
  • The atmosphere online will remain negative because trolling, in essence, draws eyeballs to sites, which then earn revenue from ads. More eyeballs means more revenue. Tech companies will have little incentive to clamp down on uncivil discourse, and the diminished traditional news media no longer will shape discourse. Meanwhile, terrorists and other political actors will benefit from the misinformation and persuasion tactics enabled by the Web;
  • The atmosphere online will improve because technical and human solutions will emerge as artificial intelligence helps break up the online world into segmented, controlled, social zones; and
  • Some solutions for oversight and moderation of communities could lead to surveillance -- and nation states might regulate debate, encouraging polarization and limiting free speech.

The Death of Free Speech?

Of all of the issues raised in the Pew survey, "I'd place [surveillance] first because it relates to government overreach and excessive control as the biggest concern," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

The exploitation of information is the least important, because "that has been going on since before Google was founded," he told TechNewsWorld.

It has progressed so far over the years that it's unlikely that anything can be done about it now, Enderle said, and "the related harm appears to be far less than anticipated."

Bad behavior by trolls and terrorists "is becoming the foundational element for overreach and could become the effective cause for legislation that also vastly reduces our ability to criticize or organize against government actions we disagree with," he cautioned.

"We're already seeing governments attempt to strong-arm tech companies into trampling on fundamental rights to privacy and speech," noted Julie Mastrine, brand and public relations manager at Care2.

However, we should not be willing to use state power to suppress hate speech, she told TechNewsWorld, "because we cannot enact legislation that would eliminate hate speech, fake news and online abuse without opening up an avenue for ideas we agree with to also be targeted, depending on who's in power."

The greater good "does not trump free speech because [its] definition is entirely subjective and shifts over time," Mastrine said. "Also, what's considered unfavorable speech one day may be a widely accepted attitude the next."

The Price of Free Speech

"Free speech means, well, free speech," said Michael Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

"The founders knew that the price of free speech was that you would occasionally be offended," he told TechNewsWorld. "They actually thought this was a good thing."

For better or worse, we're stuck with universal free speech, he remarked. "The Internet leaks, [and] there's no technology that can prevent people from finding the content they want."

The technology to avoid most censorship attempts is already widely personally available, Jude noted, and "the harder governments squeeze, the more people will find ways around them."

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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