Tech Innovation Is the Engine of Free Speech and Tech Policy Must Reflect This Reality

We’re the only country in the world where freedom of speech is not just a human right; it’s also a way of life.

But America today seems less interested in protecting free speech than at any other time in my life. Bulwarks of free speech advocacy like the American Civil Liberties Union are wavering in their support of our First Amendment rights, while prominent members of both major political parties are fighting for the government to regulate, control, monitor and censor online speech.

As Americans, we shouldn’t tolerate attacks on our First Amendment rights. Through the First Amendment, we have the freedom of the press, the freedom to associate with other like-minded people, and the freedom to share and to hear whatever speech we choose. It’s what makes America a global leader in innovation and diversity!

But protecting free speech means protecting the technology that makes it possible.

Since our nation’s founding, many innovative technologies have enhanced our ability to share and receive new ideas. From the radio and the telephone to the television and the internet, tech innovation has powered the creation of new forms of speech and communication.

In some ways, we are living today in the Golden Age of Free Speech: To speak to an audience of millions just 20 years ago, you needed to own or be invited by an owner of a TV network, radio station or newspaper. Today, all you need are a smartphone and a data connection.

As a result, everyone is empowered by social media such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Twitch to create content that can potentially reach anyone in the world. It’s no wonder a recent Vox poll found that the vast majority of Americans are tech optimists; most Americans have experienced firsthand how technology has improved their ability to communicate, stay in touch, share ideas and create content.

But the new Washington sport is lambasting and threatening these tech platforms that Americans love using in their daily lives. Washington is asking these platforms to accept an impossible ultimatum: Analyze, moderate and adjudicate political claims with impeccable precision – or face crippling regulation.

The problem is that content moderation at scale is incredibly daunting, and platforms will inevitably make mistakes. Facebook users post 350 million photos per day, while Twitter users post about 200 billion tweets per year. Moderation decisions will necessarily have to be made quickly, and mistakes taken out of context will be turned into viral anecdotes that anger both sides of the political spectrum.

Too many in Washington are exploiting the difficulties inherent in content moderation at scale to advance a dangerous regulatory agenda. Spurred on by false claims of anti-conservative bias in social media, Florida’s Republican governor recently signed a law that tells social media platforms what content and speakers they must allow. Meanwhile, a Democratic senator threatened to punish a company so it would no longer be powerful enough to “heckle senators with snotty tweets.”

As both parties play games with online free expression, more and more Americans are missing the point: Technology like social media is a force for good because it enhances and extends our freedom of speech.

We must find ways to encourage and support the application of America’s long-standing free speech traditions to the way we speak and communicate online. Rushing out knee-jerk rules that curtail freedom of speech will only set us up for disaster in the years to come.

That means not creating new and complex liability for tech innovators in the domains of media and communication. Innovation shouldn’t need congressional approval or the support of big law firms and compliance departments just to get off the ground. Threatening social media startups with legal action if their content moderation practices disappoint is a surefire way to stifle innovation in America.

But that also means encouraging tech companies to be transparent about their content moderation decisions and give people more control over what they see on their feeds. Facebook’s Oversight Board and Twitter’s Birdwatch are evolving examples of the type of transparent and fair processes that can address legitimate concerns about content moderation.

The bottom line is that technology or innovation is a tool. It is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. Instead of pointing the finger at tech companies and social media platforms, we must figure out how to unite around our values, including the values enshrined in the First Amendment.

New media and communication technologies have enhanced and can continue to improve the way we create and share speech. But it’s up to us to balance our most important liberties and First Amendment rights with the rapid evolution of the platforms, innovations and technologies that are changing and improving life around the world.


Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 1,500 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. His views are his own.

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