The internet and the town square

Philosophers have debated free speech for thousands of years, and that freedom of expression is one of the foundational principles of modern liberal democracies like that of the United States. But the internet is a very different environment than the real world, and it is worth asking if the principles we have debated for all of human history need to be revised for this new situation.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the difference between the internet and “real life.” Of course the two things are increasingly intertwined. For example, when we moved into a new home last January, I made sure to have the internet connected to the house before we moved in.

There is a big difference between time spent on the internet and time spent in the rest of daily living. The past year has been a year with a lot of anxiety for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that most of us have spent a lot more time on the internet. No matter what time of day or night I look at my email, the news online, social media, “text” threads on Signal, or pretty much anything else, I see a world that is irreparably on fire.

When I go to the grocery store, or the dentist, or take my son to his MRI, the people I meet are nice, professional, conversational, and pleasant. During the holiday, I see people buying gifts for each other and I see generosity as we offer help and charity to those fellow humans who have unmet needs. In other words, it’s very much not on fire.

This week, companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have taken steps to remove messages and accounts, or even smaller platforms, from the internet. There are a lot of very legitimate questions about freedom of speech and our values as a society that are embedded in these actions.

The internet doesn’t work the same way that the physical world works, and although that sounds obvious I think as a country (or maybe as a species), many of us are treating the internet as though it works very much like the real world. But here are some of the differences that I have in mind:

  • On the internet, you can speak to a nearly unlimited amount of people for free. An example of this is using a free Twitter account to post tweets.

  • In the real world, if you are speaking to a large number of people simultaneously, you are physically together, and can judge the reaction to your words in real-time.

  • On the internet, you can search.

  • On the internet, someone else can easily pretend to be you, and you can pretend to be someone else.

  • In the real world, your peer group is made up of people who live near where you live.

These and other differences mean we need to do some deep thinking about whether or not we should apply our principles the same way in the real world and on the internet. The sanctity of free speech that we take for granted is based on its potential for both harm and good given the constraints of the real world.

It might be that free speech in the real world is more defensible than free speech on the internet. At the moment, we are certainly treating them differently.