Those strong words came from the Freedom on the Net 2019 report issued by the nonprofit Freedom House.
The report makes for grim reading. Internet freedoms have been going down every year since Freedom House first started these reports nine years ago. And while China retained its position as “world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth consecutive year,” Americans shouldn’t be feeling smug: the U.S. is in its third straight year of decline.
“Law enforcement and immigration agencies expanded their surveillance of the public… Officials increasingly monitored social media platforms and conducted warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices to glean information about constitutionally protected activities… Disinformation was again prevalent around major political events… [with] both domestic and foreign actors manipulate[ing] content for political purposes…”
In response, the excellent "Morning Brew: Emerging Tech" newsletter wryly recalled a 1999 comment by then-candidate George W. Bush: “Imagine if the internet took hold in China. Imagine how freedom would spread.”
The idea wasn’t preposterous. Outside of China, without gatekeepers, we saw unprecedented movements for global democracy.
But in China, where the internet took hold in a centralized, controlled way, the government now has even greater intrusion and control over the lives of its citizens.
This week, Stratechery’s Ben Thompson defended Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to fact-check political ads: “[T]he point [of the First Amendment] was to avoid tyranny, and Facebook deciding what is or is not true is exactly that -- tyranny. It is an approach that is inimical to the culture of free expression that birthed the law about free expression, and the company is right to push back on calls that it be the arbiter of truth.”
I rarely disagree with Ben, but I’m not entirely on board here. Yes, the framers had a specific idea when they wrote the First Amendment. But the reason the Constitution is able to be amended at all -- albeit rarely -- is they also understood that, as our ideas get implemented, we get to compare the theory with the practice. And if we’re any good at human-ing, we take the data from the practice and use it to update the assumptions that drove the theory.
In theory, if the internet took hold in China, freedom would spread. In practice, China is the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom. In theory, as Zuckerberg claims, lies will lose to the truth in the marketplace of ideas, so there’s no point in fact-checking; let the people see for themselves who said what. In practice -- since messages are microtargeted to only those who want to hear them -- lies and truth rarely ever come in contact on our social media platforms.
Some people seem to think freedom of speech means anyone can say anything at any time -- but there’s an obvious paradox here, as I discussed a few weeks ago:
1. If you support unfettered freedom of speech, I should be able to say that you shouldn’t have freedom of speech.
2. If my argument is compelling and enough people agree, we will be able to act on that idea.
3. Because you protected my freedom of speech, I can now take yours away.
Freedom House agrees, pointing out that our freedoms are being eroded because we let people say whatever they want. “[T]he world’s leading social media platforms are based in the United States, and their exploitation by antidemocratic forces is in large part a product of American neglect. Whether due to naïveté about the internet’s role in democracy promotion or policymakers’ laissez-faire attitude toward Silicon Valley, we now face a stark reality: the future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.”
Social media is in crisis mode. We need to take the data from the practice and update of our theories. The future of internet freedom rests on it.