Speech Police: vital, critical look at the drive to force Big Tech to control who may speak and what they may say

David Kaye (previously) has served as the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression since 2014 — a critical half-decade in the evolution of free speech both online and offline; in Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet a new, short book from Columbia Special Reports, Kaye provides a snapshot of the global state of play for expression, as governments, platforms, and activists act out of a mix of both noble and corrupt motives to control online discourse.

Kaye's work is informed by his compassion for the real problems of harassment and incitements to violence; his skepticism for the ways that profit, self-serving rationalization, and a desire to avoid political embarrassment all animate the drive to control online expression; and a sense of the real technical and procedural problems emerging from the drive to deputize the platforms to decide who may speak and what they may say.

Speech Police documents the emergence of a system of shadow governance, in which our civics and politics have moved online, onto platforms that — thanks to decades of antitrust malpractice — control the ability of billions of people to discuss their views and mobilize to create change. And while governments are often critical of the failings of platforms to address all kinds of bad speech, from the glorification of terrorist atrocities to the spread of conspiracy theories to the enabling of campaigns of harassment and even genocide, these same governments are only too happy to entrust these platforms with even more public duties to police our speech, despite their incompetence to date.

Kaye carefully unpicks the ways that the platforms profit-driven motives dovetail with politicians' drive to suppress revelations about corruption and wrongdoing, and how this produces pathological outcomes, from Facebook's suppression of warnings about genocidal violence and amplification of calls for more pogroms in Myanmar to Twitter and Youtube's complicity in covering up war crimes in Syria. The platforms want to keep their advertisers happy and they want to increase profits by locating sales offices in every country, even those with terrible human rights practices, and this distorts the other moderation priorities of the platforms, like suppressing racist and sexist harassment.

Kaye finishes the book with a set of sensible suggestions for improving these outcomes, modest proposals that would allow for insight into the platforms' moderation policies and practices, that could inform the debate about what we should do next.

We're at a critical juncture, in which the long-overdue techlash is being co-opted to put more power in the hands of Big Tech, in the guise of forcing the tech giants to take on more responsibility. Getting this right will have implications for decades, and Kaye's work here is crucial to understanding the tactics, rhetoric and stakes in one of the most consequential free speech debates in human history.

Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet [David Kaye/Columbia Global Report]

(Image: Bill Kerr, CC-BY-SA)