Corporations now worryingly dictate the parameters of free speech | columns | Hindustan Times
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Corporations now worryingly dictate the parameters of free speech

As the Y2K generation becomes old enough to vote, it is coming of age in a time when communication is digital, on social media, and the crisis in free speech as well as the power to silence has been transferred from governments to web platforms

columns Updated: Jan 05, 2018 20:43 IST
The model of the Great Firewall of China is being emulated across platforms, with corporations dictating the parameters, pressured by those easily offended
The model of the Great Firewall of China is being emulated across platforms, with corporations dictating the parameters, pressured by those easily offended (Reuters)

As elections are held in states, provinces and federal legislatures this year in North America and India, a freshly-enfranchised batch of voters will cast their ballots for the first time: Those born in this millennium. Actually, since there is disagreement over when the millennium began, the year 2000 or 2001, it may be wiser to dub this cohort the Y2K Generation. As the Oxford Dictionaries selected ‘youthquake’ as the word of 2017, it may be interesting to observe whether these Y2Kers will shake up democratic polities that already have fault lines.

Remember Y2K? It was that bodyshopping bonanza that sent thousands of Indian programmers westward in an effort to prevent a digital apocalypse. Born in a year of crisis, this generation, web-weaned as it is, could be faced with one of its own: The best and worst of times for free speech.

The flourishing of social media platforms has given a voice to those whose opinions weren’t heard earlier, even if some of those expressions make for difficult listening. But what 2017 has shown is that this phenomenon has deepened the divide in societies, and, more worryingly, the corporations who run these empires, with populations larger than many nations, may believe they have had enough of this libertarian vibe. Instead of government, the power to silence has passed on to them.

The model of the Great Firewall of China is being emulated across platforms, with corporations dictating the parameters, pressured by those easily offended. These are getting to be our version of Weibos. While those Chinese microblogging sites cull speech that Beijing finds politically inappropriate, their western cousins cut off what is considered politically incorrect.

Depending on geographies, what is so deemed changes somewhat, as a pair of recent examples in India show. Some speech, of course, isn’t worth protecting, like promoting terrorism or violence against groups or an individual, threats of that nature, or paedophilia. But platforms are increasingly altering their terms and conditions and forming advisory committees to police “hate speech”. That’s in quotation marks because those are subjective interpretations, foisted upon users by Silicon Valley’s commissars of communication.

Since these platforms are not considered utilities, despite now being basic means of communication, handles can be manhandled without explanation, based upon anonymous complaints.

In his BBC Radio interview to Prince Harry, former US President Barack Obama recently said, “One of the dangers of the Internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be just cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.” He may have been better off making those comments in Mountain View or Menlo Park, California.

Hopefully, someone there listened instead of trying to make everyone conform to their reality because the new generation may otherwise be deprived of the ability to argue differing views, political or social, which their elders took for granted.

Hopefully, the marketplace of ideas will boom and debate will bloom in the new year.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal