Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Formidable to Tyrants Only

 

The title comes from the Declaration of Independence. Third on the list of grievances, Ol’ Tommy J. has this to say:

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

We are represented in the legislature albeit (as I’ve been known to argue) poorly. And although we’re taxed at levels that’d make our forefathers choke we can’t be said to be taxed without representation. This particular situation isn’t one I’m arguing today. I’m considering what else might fall in the category “a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.”

Rights Such as the Freedom of Speech

It used to be that we generally agreed on free speech; that you could say what you wanted while broadly acknowledging some exceptions. The arguments were all about where the lines ought to be drawn. Giving secrets to enemies in wartime is obviously bad, but maybe the current classification system is too onerous. At what point does a threatening statement transition from being generally free speech to ‘fighting words’? Is the best way to tell what’s pornography just to show it to a supreme court judge and ask him?

These days though we’ve got people who are demanding a broad new exception to the principle of free speech. Anything that gives offense in one of several categories, which categories to be determined at a later date. Never mind the blatant disregard for causality that prosecuting ex post facto crimes implies the question of offense is inherently nebulous. On top of all that the intersectional determination of who exactly is allowed to take offense contradicts one of the self-evident truths stated earlier in the declaration, to wit that all men are created equal. As an aside you’ll note that Thomas Jefferson himself is guilty of a hate crime for failing to include other genders in that statement. Dig him up and hang him!

The Difference Between Law and Custom

You may take it as read that I’m against any sort of codification of hate speech into law. The problem, however, is that any such codification is currently redundant. The Twitter mob will take your job, and friends and relatives will no longer speak to you because of your wrongthink. At that point, custom has decreed you anathema and anything the law might do is extra. The consequence, therefore, is that any solution, if such a problem will admit to a solution, must not merely address questions of law but also be resilient to the Twitter mob.

Indeed, the biggest social media bullies of them all are the corporations behind it; Twitter and Facebook taking it upon themselves to gently correct the misguided thoughts of people who had the temerity to use their programs. Who would have thought the people who built the biggest gossip networks in the world would also want to put themselves up as the world’s biggest moral scolds? But a moment’s consideration indicates the futility of using law to constrain the corporations. Supposing it’s a law that has any bite at all on them, any law that would constrain them would also constrain anyone else from any number of harmless activities.

Let me explain. Google street view takes a picture of your house. Legal. They take seven million pictures of every house from here to Tipperary (and it’s a long way to Tipperary) and put it all together so that anyone in the world can go traipsing down your street and see anything that’s publicly visible. That might be an invasion of privacy. Supposing that passed a law making it illegal to take photographs of other people’s houses. You can bet your britches that Google will manage to deal with it and ordinary dorks who just happen to take a picture which partly shows someone’s house in the background will be guilty of trespassing that law.

The Tyranny Inherent in Censorship

Let’s swing us back to the question of free speech. The First Amendment only constrains the government; it doesn’t apply to private entities. There’s a problem with that line of thinking though; it gets things backward. The First Amendment isn’t correct because it’s in the Constitution; it’s in the Constitution because it’s correct. It’s one of those unalienable rights Jefferson mentioned. (You’ll note that his famous list was only three “among these rights”.)

Whether or not we have a legal duty to respect the free speech we have a moral obligation to respect it in others. That doesn’t mean you have to let every jackanape out there talk on their cell phone in a movie theater, but it does require a certain respect for other’s political opinions, however asinine they might be. In the past the ACLU had this correct; you have to let the Nazis march.

Today the argument is that saying these things can be painful. And to be honest it is; words can be more painful than physical injury. The thing is, generally, the words that really hurt aren’t the political opinions. It’s not people who think you’re wrong; it’s people who betray you in personal things. It’s uncomfortable having people disagree with you but anyone who’s grown up has learned to deal with that pain.

The people who shun you for having the wrong opinions, the corporations that set themselves up as the moral arbiters, the college students who riot rather than have someone they dislike speak, what exactly are they afraid of? The answer is that it’s not a question of fear, it’s a question of power. “Formidable to tyrants only.” Maybe these people don’t think they’re setting themselves up as tyrants, but that’s the inevitable result. You can’t assume the authority to determine what people are and aren’t allowed to say without necessarily making yourself a tyrant.

What, Therefore, Is to be Done?

There’s a tendency in this kind of article to describe a problem and end it by prescribing your miracle tonic to solve that problem. I don’t know that I believe that this sort of problem actually has a solution. Nevertheless, here are a couple ways I’ve thought about to address it:

We can use the power of the government to break up Google, we need riot police to stop speakers from being intimidated out of college events, we need laws to regulate what people can say on Twitter… wait, wasn’t that what we were fighting against? I’m very wary about using government power to solve any problem because of all the ways it can go wrong. Not the least of which is setting up a tyranny worse than the one we’re trying to escape. Let’s see what other options are out there.

We can wait for the culture to change. This isn’t as stupid as it sounds; Mankind has the natural disposition to assume that everything will stay the same forever (when it isn’t actively getting worse). That’s not necessarily true. Things change; perhaps enough NPC types will find themselves disavowed by their comrades that the left will do some serious soul-searching and move away from that strategy. Perhaps we’ll devolve into a bloody civil war and questions about who controls Google searches will seem charmingly quaint. Perhaps companies will learn that firing people at the first sign of Twitter outrage won’t save them. Perhaps we have far less control over events than we think we do, and we should avoid any compromises that lead to deleterious side effects without affecting the root problem.

We can outcompete them. Build a better Facebook that won’t go all book-burny. You know, because we can totally trust our institutions to maintain the noble ideals under which they were founded. I’m also not that confident that we could set up a better search algorithm than Google.

We can go around them entirely. Imagine a decentralized store of information; something that everyone can read and write to, but which no one can alter. No chance to ignore stories that someone thinks important, no chance of shutting anyone up that disagrees with you. On the plus side, that means that no one can censor it and that everyone has an equal chance at the information. On the minus side, no one can censor it and everyone has equal access to the information. Remember the word ‘censor’ comes from the Roman political office with that name, dedicated to protecting public morality. If no one has the ability to remove information then people can write all the worst dregs of the internet to it and there’s nothing we could do.

Right now I’m on the ‘wait until the world turns’ plan, with updates as events warrant. I don’t think that it’s particularly likely that today’s censors, now that they’ve snorted the joys of tyranny, are likely to wean themselves off of it willingly. I’ll keep on trying to change the world in my small way, mindful of the fact that the fate of the world is not mine to decide. If you’ve got any better ideas I’d love to hear ’em.

There are 19 comments.

  1. The Reticulator Member

    I don’t want government to break up Google. I want government to enact policies and establish boundaries within which Google might wish to break itself up. But that requires greater decentralization, and there are a lot of conservatives and Republicans who don’t want local authority to make their own rules on these things. That would be a threat to a lot of business models that depend on scaling up, and it would almost certainly mean we would have to accept a bit less national prosperity than we have.

    • #1
    • January 18, 2019, at 10:49 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  2. Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito Contributor

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I want government to enact policies and establish boundaries within which Google might wish to break itself up. But that requires greater decentralization, and there are a lot of conservatives and Republicans who don’t want local authority to make their own rules on these things.

    I think I’m missing a couple steps here; what sort of policies are you talking about that would encourage such companies to break themselves up, and why does that imply decentralization.

    Not that I’m against decentralization, mind you.

    • #2
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:03 AM PST
    • 1 like
  3. MeandurΦ Member
    MeandurΦ Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I don’t think a law to break up Google or Facebook or Twitter is appropriate.

    They just need to be regulated as what kind of busines they operate as.

    They got dispensation to be protected as communication utilities, like the telephone.

    But when they started deciding what content to allow, they became publishers, so they need to be regulated as such.

    • #3
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:11 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  4. The Reticulator Member

    Hank Rhody, Acting on Emotion (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I want government to enact policies and establish boundaries within which Google might wish to break itself up. But that requires greater decentralization, and there are a lot of conservatives and Republicans who don’t want local authority to make their own rules on these things.

    I think I’m missing a couple steps here; what sort of policies are you talking about that would encourage such companies to break themselves up, and why does that imply decentralization.

    Not that I’m against decentralization, mind you.

    Letting the states regulate the internet traffic that crosses their borders would be an example. If one state wants to impose one of the many versions of net neutrality on traffic across and within its borders, that would be an example. It would require some Constitutional amendments, though. (Seems to me that one of the states, probably California, was recently making noises about doing just this, but I can’t think of the details offhand. Seems to me it was within the last few months.) 

    • #4
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:12 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. The Reticulator Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody, Acting on Emotion (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I want government to enact policies and establish boundaries within which Google might wish to break itself up. But that requires greater decentralization, and there are a lot of conservatives and Republicans who don’t want local authority to make their own rules on these things.

    I think I’m missing a couple steps here; what sort of policies are you talking about that would encourage such companies to break themselves up, and why does that imply decentralization.

    Not that I’m against decentralization, mind you.

    Letting the states regulate the internet traffic that crosses their borders would be an example. If one state wants to impose one of the many versions of net neutrality on traffic across and within its borders, that would be an example. It would require some Constitutional amendments, though. (Seems to me that one of the states, probably California, was recently making noises about doing just this, but I can’t think of the details offhand. Seems to me it was within the last few months.)

    Another example might be allowing states to do their own regulation of advertising. Some states might enact regs that wouldn’t be compatible with Google’s or Facebook’s advertising system. I haven’t seen any specific proposals to do this, though. 

    • #5
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:13 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  6. Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito Contributor

    MeanDurphy (View Comment):
    (…)

    But when they started deciding what content to allow, they became publishers, so they need to be regulated as such.

    Can’t say that I disagree with the action, but it does seem insufficient to warn them away from playing moral scold.

    • #6
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:18 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito Contributor

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Letting the states regulate the internet traffic that crosses their borders would be an example.

    Hmm.. the problem with this is that it also messes with smaller enterprises.

    I live in Wisconsin. The Ricochet servers are presumably in California. Your profile says you’re in Michigan. Therefore any communication between us would have to not only have to conform to the regulations of those three states but also all the states the internet traffic might cross in between. Google et al might be able to field a legal team that deals with all that. Ricochet.com almost certainly can’t afford it.

    It seems to me that the surest way to enshrine a monopoly is to regulate the industry enough that new entrants have to pay prohibitive start-up costs.

    • #7
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:23 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  8. Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito Contributor

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Another example might be allowing states to do their own regulation of advertising. Some states might enact regs that wouldn’t be compatible with Google’s or Facebook’s advertising system. I haven’t seen any specific proposals to do this, though. 

    This seems solid. What happens to the advertising industry (and the economy as a whole) as people get more aggressive about applying better ad blockers remains to be seen.

    • #8
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:24 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  9. The Reticulator Member

    Hank Rhody, Acting on Emotion (View Comment):
    It seems to me that the surest way to enshrine a monopoly is to regulate the industry enough that new entrants have to pay prohibitive start-up costs.

    That’s usually the problem with regulation, but the Republican big-business mania in the last few years for having federal laws that preclude state and local regulation has been an eye-opener. It makes me think the best way to fight corrupt crony capitalism on a large scale is to allow it at more local levels. 

    This sort of thing worked for the Holy Roman Empire for several centuries, but only until the HRE itself couldn’t compete with the more centralized governments outside it.

    • #9
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:30 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. Judge Mental, Secret Chimp Member

    Hank Rhody, Acting on Emotion (View Comment):

    MeanDurphy (View Comment):
    (…)

    But when they started deciding what content to allow, they became publishers, so they need to be regulated as such.

    Can’t say that I disagree with the action, but it does seem insufficient to warn them away from playing moral scold.

    I don’t know about that. If they were held to the same standards as a newspaper, they would be facing millions of lawsuits for libel. If your brother-in-law makes a nasty crack about you, sue Facebook for publishing it. Even settling at nuisance levels, that would get pricey in a hurry.

    No nudity, no calls for violence or other criminal behavior, no fraud. Beyond that, they are exercising editorial control, and should be held to the standard above.

    • #10
    • January 18, 2019, at 11:52 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  11. MeandurΦ Member
    MeandurΦ Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hank Rhody, Acting on Emotion (View Comment):

    MeanDurphy (View Comment):
    (…)

    But when they started deciding what content to allow, they became publishers, so they need to be regulated as such.

    Can’t say that I disagree with the action, but it does seem insufficient to warn them away from playing moral scold.

    As publishers they can be sued for libel. The action is on the part of the injured parties.

    • #11
    • January 18, 2019, at 12:40 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  12. Flicker Inactive

    MeanDurphy (View Comment):
    But when they started deciding what content to allow, they became publishers, so they need to be regulated as such.

    I tend to favor: Don’t regulate anything and let the police deal with criminal behavior on the internet, like porn (or only child porn if you wish), slave sales, bride sales, fraud, incitement to commit a crime (including the crime of suicide), threatening, stalking and harassment, stuff like that.

    That would clean it an awful lot, especially if there were real penalties.

    • #12
    • January 18, 2019, at 12:42 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  13. Flicker Inactive

    MeanDurphy (View Comment):
    They just need to be regulated as what kind of business they operate as.

    I don’t like any regulation, but I like criminal prosecution for real crimes. We all see screen grabs of biased search results. There may be a way to enforce google unbiased result, which of course were meant to influence elections and such. I don’t know how it could be proven, but disparate impact is a real thing, so maybe they can say that their algorithm is racist, sexist or whatever, against conservatives. ??

    Added: That thought sort of faded away before the end of the sentence. I mean the effects of their algorithm, whether intended or not, have disparate impact on some groups. Like looking up Clinton and only getting “Hillary is… marvelous” autocompletes and articles.

    Or perhaps one could use a “bias against certain advertisers” approach. Regulation only makes things worse over time, but if there really are any identifiable crimes, I’d stick to that.

    • #13
    • January 18, 2019, at 12:48 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  14. Judge Mental, Secret Chimp Member

    Flicker (View Comment):

    MeanDurphy (View Comment):
    But when they started deciding what content to allow, they became publishers, so they need to be regulated as such.

    I tend to favor: Don’t regulate anything and let the police deal with criminal behavior on the internet, like porn (or only child porn if you wish), slave sales, bride sales, fraud, incitement to commit a crime (including the crime of suicide), threatening, stalking and harassment, stuff like that.

    That would clean it an awful lot, especially if there were real penalties.

    I would limit that to criminal complaints, filed by individuals. Otherwise, you get the UK solution, which is squads of cops cruising the net looking for offensive behavior. Demand a victim.

    • #14
    • January 18, 2019, at 12:49 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  15. Flicker Inactive

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    I would limit that to criminal complaints, filed by individuals. Otherwise, you get the UK solution, which is squads of cops cruising the net looking for offensive behavior. Demand a victim.

    I suppose. I would prefer that it is the report of a real complaint. I wouldn’t want to make the cops our thought police, but even the advertisement to sell a child is, I would imagine, a crime in itself. If it gets onto the desk of the police, investigate, forward to DA and prosecute heartily.

    • #15
    • January 18, 2019, at 12:55 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  16. Judge Mental, Secret Chimp Member

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    I would limit that to criminal complaints, filed by individuals. Otherwise, you get the UK solution, which is squads of cops cruising the net looking for offensive behavior. Demand a victim.

    I suppose. I would prefer that it is the report of a real complaint. I wouldn’t want to make the cops our thought police, but even the advertisement to sell a child is, I would imagine, a crime in itself. If it gets onto the desk of the police, investigate, forward to DA and prosecute heartily.

    Agree.

    • #16
    • January 18, 2019, at 12:57 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  17. Matt Saracen Coolidge

    Hank Rhody, Acting on Emotion:

    We can out-compete them. Build a better Facebook that won’t go all book-burny. You know, because we can totally trust our institutions to maintain the noble ideals under which they were founded. I’m also not that confident that we could set up a better search algorithm than Google.

    I am. Because Google is only, for purposes of actual, you know, revenue, simply an ad delivery company, their “algorithm” for search depends far too much on knowing far too much about the user they’re serving ads to. It’s like if Lamar billboards had cameras that not only scanned for your license plate, looking up your information, and checking to see if you’ve looked at the billboard.

    If you take that away, then the search algorithm isn’t that complicated.

    Now, I’m not saying we’re going to create a better search engine without any revenue, but there must be other ways of doing it. 

    • #17
    • January 18, 2019, at 3:22 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  18. Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito Contributor

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    If you take that away, then the search algorithm isn’t that complicated.

    Now, I’m not saying we’re going to create a better search engine without any revenue, but there must be other ways of doing it. 

    On the one hand it does seem like we’re too quick to say ‘and sell ads’ to monetize any venture. On the other hand, advertisers seem to be the only ones willing to pay for anything on the internet.

    • #18
    • January 18, 2019, at 3:33 PM PST
    • Like
  19. Matt Saracen Coolidge

    Hank Rhody, Acting on Emotion (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    If you take that away, then the search algorithm isn’t that complicated.

    Now, I’m not saying we’re going to create a better search engine without any revenue, but there must be other ways of doing it.

    On the one hand it does seem like we’re too quick to say ‘and sell ads’ to monetize any venture. On the other hand, advertisers seem to be the only ones willing to pay for anything on the internet.

    And yet, Netflix has tens of millions of paying users each month.

    • #19
    • January 18, 2019, at 4:23 PM PST
    • 2 likes