Saturday, January 09, 2021

Three Laws Safe

I'm a fan of Ben Thompson's business analysis blog Stratechery. It's hard to say exactly what it's about. His background (such as it is; he's actually younger than his writing and analysis would lead you to believe) is an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School and a relatively brief career in marketing and strategy. But what he writes about is far broader than that. Even if I don't agree with him, he gives me much to think about.

His latest article, "Trump and Twitter", is why he supports Twitter's blocking of President Trump. This is not the first time that he has written that social media companies have to have the following priorities, from highest to lowest:

  1. liberalism is inviolable;
  2. democracy must be respected;
  3. bad policies should be opposed.

Here, liberalism isn't used here the Big-L Liberal political sense; it is used in the small-l liberal sense that we are

  • governed by the rule of law, and
  • have a guarantee of individual rights and personal liberty.

This is the way it's meant in the phrase "liberal democracy".

This is kinda like Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics: democracy only if it doesn't violate individual rights (the majority can't vote to take away someone's individual rights except in the case of the rule of law); oppose bad policies only in as much as they respect democracy and don't violate the rule of law or individual rights. And you have to remember that rule of law is the first liberal requirement.

I confess I'm still trying to decide whether I agree completely with this list of priorities; I'm inclined to say that I do, but I need to ponder the consequences of it. For example, our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech do not protect all speech (contrary to popular belief). So in fact, banning Trump from Twitter does not violate his right to freedom of speech, because speech that promotes hate, violence, and crime is not protected; that is the rule of law. Also, our First Amendment rights are regarding what our government can do, not what a company or individual can do; no one is required to provide someone a forum for their speech, protected or not (something else that people often don't understand).

The point here is the people who stormed the U. S. Capitol were following priority #3, while ignoring #2, and the "rule of law" part of #1.

I think using these three simple priorities as a kind of ethical checklist is the way I am heading. Is it complete? Probably not. But a lot of stuff other folks would want to add would actually fall under #3, opposing bad policies. The weakness in this is that you and I (and the yahoos that stormed the Capitol) may disagree what a exactly a "bad policy" is. But even as we disagree, we surely can agree that #1 and #2 come first.

Once you and I can agree on #1 and #2, we can have a civil, rational conversation about what falls under #3.

I look forward to that.


Paul Moorman said...

The issue on "Twitter vs Trump" is not that they made a right or wrong decision, but that they pick and choose who to censor and who not to, and it's very clear that they are exposing their political views of right and wrong in cases like this, not the rule of law or any kind of non-partisan or balanced view. If we agree that "hate speech" is unacceptable, then they should take it all down. If calling for violence is unacceptable, take it all down. If they mark posts as "disputed", they should mark all posts that are disputed as such. It's not that they legally have to do any of this, as they are protected by Section 230, apparently. It's just not good business sense to alienate half the country, particularly in the Internet space where options either exist or the barriers to entry for competitors are very low.

Chip Overclock said...

I see this as a free market issue. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple are free to make what they think are good business decisions. Whether those are good decisions or not, the market will decide. I do believe there may be monopoly or monopsony issues at play in the big tech companies. But in this case, they are making a business decision, and the decision is not aimed at restricting the speech of a protect class (like race, or religion). In any event, not all speech is protected, and the First Amendment has to do with what our government can or cannot do, not what a company must or must not do. Those who disagree with that business decision are free to find other forums who are more welcoming of their speech. As a libertarian-leaning independent, I believe that the market - appropriately regulated against externalities and other market dysfunctions - is the preferred mechanism to deciding who succeeds and who fails. I choose to listen to the market. The mere fact that options exist and barriers to entry are low is exactly why this decision by these tech giants is unworthy of any kind of government intervention. If (for example) Parler cannot attract or recruit sufficient membership to achieve network effects similar to Facebook or Twitter, then that is the market speaking.