In today’s extremely connected world, discussions which aim to justify various perspectives on freedom of speech are unavoidable. Technological advances have made it incredibly easy for individuals from all walks of life to express themselves, having the ability to share their opinions across the globe.
Many scholars have examined this process from a philosophical and legal viewpoint in a bid to maintain structured debate around how new technology can be beneficial for humanity as a whole.
A history of free speech
In 399 BC, Socrates had his right to free expression stifled by authorities as he was put on trial for propagating controversial ideas. Since then, a multitude of philosophical ideas have emerged regarding the degree of free speech that an individual should have.
Many philosophers have articulated and defended their rational arguments on freedom of speech that ultimately established the foundations for modern justice systems around the world.
Immanuel Kant contrasted the people and the state in his philosophical theory of free speech, contending that they should agree on the matter. He argued that one’s right to free speech is justified as long as it coexists with the rights of all individuals, namely that one’s right to freely promote their views should not infringe on the rights of others.
It is essential to retain the meaning attached to the word ‘individual’ when referring to liberty. He added that the state, which usually asserts its authority over the governed, should only be involved in these matters by making sure people’s freedoms do not come in conflict with the freedom of others.
Kant’s views on freedom of speech embody a simple and straightforward philosophical understanding. But, where and how am I allowed to exercise freedom of speech that coexists with the freedom of all individuals?
Conflicts around free speech and responsibility
Expressing and propagating your thoughts can have a variety of powerful consequences, both positive and negative. An issue arises when individuals have to account for the consequences of their actions. If the outcome is positive, most people take full credit, but when the consequences are negative, they do not. This is often tied to the idea of how one should express oneself free of any concomitant acknowledgement of responsibility.
For historical reference, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, who were arguably well ahead of their time, wrote two phenomenal novels, 1984 and Brave New World, that portrayed intense confrontations between the state and the people over free speech. In broad terms, there is speech that causes contingent harms, as well as speech that causes non- contingent harms.
It appears that the idea of stifling free speech in order to prevent harm ought to fit in with the fundamental role of the state of protecting individual rights. However, aside from this reason, it is unlikely that the state would have a legitimate justification for why it prevents people from exercising their right to freedom of speech.
Major tech companies provide important mediums for speech
Private tech companies have now emerged as the foremost providers of mediums for expressing ideas. Until recently, the major tech companies weren’t overly concerned about moderating the content shared on their platforms, since they aren’t liable for its consequences. This is facilitated by legislation such as Section 230 in the United States.
Problems occur when speech results in contingent harms and someone needs to be held accountable. Major tech companies aren’t prepared for this, since revenues greatly depend on their reputation and brands. Additionally, people who use their platforms also don’t want to be held accountable for their actions.
The right of private platform providers to moderate content
On this issue, one can recognize that private companies have every right to restrict the speech of an individual or a group that uses their platform to spread hate and thoughts that are detrimental to freedom and rights of others.
Evidently, this relates to the nature of these businesses, along with their missions and goals. As such, liberty and free markets can be supported without a totalitarian means of forcibly converting private organizations into public organizations whereby either no speech is regulated or all speech becomes extremely regulated depending on who gets their way.
It is undeniable that humans are social beings that depend on one another for survival. The ability to express one’s own opinions is therefore a question of human rights. Therefore, sharing, communicating, and interpreting information are major components of this framework.
However, the issue of righteous or incorrect thinking from the perspective of major tech companies seems to be a wholly utilitarian question. One that is heavily influenced by the consequences of free speech and who is willing to assume responsibility.
We are at a point in time where it is important to engage in discussions regarding exponential technological growth, its significance in today’s society, the regulations around it, and how developments in technology can best serve humanity.
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This article was originally published on the Students For Liberty website in April 2021.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.