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Friday, September 25, 2020

Explained Ideas: Why regulating speech is a very complicated issue

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: We must ask tough questions about Facebook's role. But the problem of freedom, civility, censorship goes deeper.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 5, 2020 7:25:21 am
Facebook, facebook hate speech, facebook fake news, facebook india controversy, facebook BJP links, PB Mehta on Facebook India controversy, Indian ExpressThe Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s top public policy executive in India “opposed applying hate-speech rules” to individuals and groups linked with the BJP. (Reuters Photo/File)

Facebook is rightly coming under scrutiny for the way it regulates speech. The complaints against Facebook are: political partisanship, not being attentive enough to hate speech and fake news, opaque algorithms that direct users to particular kinds of content, inadequate privacy controls, and inordinate and unaccountable power to shape public discourse.

These complaints take on an even sharper edge when there is a perception, as reported by the Wall Street Journal story, that key functionaries of Facebook might have views that blatantly support a political party.

“But while we hold Facebook accountable, we should be under no illusion that there any are easy solutions to the challenges posed by Facebook,” writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his latest column in The Indian Express.

For one, while the stated political partisanship of Facebook officials is coming under scrutiny, the irony is that the manifest political partisanship of public officials is going unchallenged. It is, for instance, remarkable how many serving IAS officers now don’t just disseminate government schemes, but openly violate norms of civil service neutrality, without repercussions.

The second issue is one of censorship. Here’s the dilemma according to Mehta: “Freedom of expression is easy to institutionalise when speech is, as it were, safe. Where it leads to incitement, violence, attacks on group identity, or awful forms of subordination, people’s convictions about defending free speech fade”.

Many politicians, from Donald Trump to Kapil Mishra, engage in speech that might be construed to be harmful. “But the honest truth is that liberals should equally worry about the fact that we are giving private companies authority to potentially censor or redirect the speech of elected officials,” he writes.

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Then there is the elephant in the room: The business model. Facebook invites attention because of its great power, which needs to be regulated. But it is not clear that lots of competition is going to solve concerns about partisanship and censorship in social media. In some sense, says Mehta, hate pays.

“So while we need to ask tough questions about Facebook’s role, let us not pretend that all we are doing is enacting a performance. Resisting Facebook’s power will require a more radical withdrawal from a logic of profit that blurs the boundary between public and private, without which no freedom and civility is possible,” he concludes.

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