There were some strong negative reactions to this op-ed in The Atlantic. I think it was mostly because it contains some pretty jarring statements. Particularly, the subhed, which most people probably didn’t even read past: “In the debate over freedom versus control of the global network, China was largely correct, and the U.S. was wrong.”
That sounds pretty bad. I was all set to get in on the outrage. But then I read the rest. The article is not a defense of the Chinese government’s authoritarian approach to internet control. To the contrary, it lays out how we sadly aren’t exactly a shining beacon of free online speech over here either.
The result a decade later is that most of our online speech now occurs in closely monitored playpens where many tens of thousands of human censors review flagged content to ensure compliance with ever-lengthier and more detailed “community standards” (or some equivalent). More and more, this human monitoring and censorship is supported—or replaced—by sophisticated computer algorithms. The firms use these tools to define acceptable forms of speech and other content on their platforms, which in turn sets the effective boundaries for a great deal of speech in the U.S. public forum.
And the larger point is that this ‘temporary’ crackdown on harmful speech (public health misinformation) is not some extreme emergency measure, but rather the world we have lived in for some time--just with the censorship knob turned one click further.
What is different about speech regulation related to COVID-19 is the context: The problem is huge and the stakes are very high. But when the crisis is gone, there is no unregulated “normal” to return to. We live—and for several years, we have been living—in a world of serious and growing harms resulting from digital speech. Governments will not stop worrying about these harms. And private platforms will continue to expand their definition of offensive content, and will use algorithms to regulate it ever more closely. The general trend toward more speech control will not abate.
So that subhed doesn’t seem to be arguing that authoritarian control is “correct.” Their point seems to be that the Chinese approach is how it was always going to be, and we shouldn’t delude ourselves about where we are headed, good or, more likely, bad.
A bank blocked donations to a charity without explaining why:
And in a new brief from Oxfam describes the added financial pressure that the pandemic has placed on remittances to Somalia.
Not only do many [in the] Somali diaspora have less money to send, but many are still unable to send home even the reduced amounts they can afford due to preexisting and prohibitive banking restrictions. The aggressive approach of governments, particularly the United States, has left banks unwilling or unable to shoulder the risk to support MTOs who are sending money to what are deemed “high risk” places. Regulations which do have important intentions, have had unintended consequences, and have Somali families as collateral damage. Oxfam has called on governments to address these barriers in the past, and now their failure to act has exacerbated this crisis.
The Chinese government’s attempts to control the narrative around their virus response continues. As Quartz reports:
A group of volunteers in China who worked to prevent digital records of the coronavirus outbreak from being scrubbed by censors are now targets of a crackdown.
Cai Wei, a Beijing-based man who participated in one such project on GitHub, the software development website, was arrested together with his girlfriend by Beijing police on April 19. The couple were accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a commonly used charge against dissidents in China, according to Chen Kun, the brother of Chen Mei, another volunteer involved with the project. Chen Mei has been missing since that same day. On April 24, the couple’s families received a police notice that informed them of the charge, and said the two have been put under “residential surveillance at a designated place.” There is still no information about Chen Mei, said his brother.
Speaking of... we had some thoughts on how a US digital currency, if it’s inevitable, should be designed.
If we are really going to do this we need to do it right. Or not at all.
The Lebanese currency crisis is getting worse. Here’s what I said about that.