On today’s show we’re talking about Freedom of Speech and what it means to be neutral.
The year was 1889 and Almon Strowger was the local undertaker in Kansas City Missouri. Clients would call the operator and ask to be connected with the undertaker. The operator was called Mabel. They were all called Mabel. In those days, the operator would patch you through by pulling a wire out of the console and connecting the call manually to the destination. The problem is that one of the operators was married to the other competing undertaker in town and Almon Strowger was losing business to his competition because, in his opinion, the operator was giving calls intended for him to the competition, her husband. So Almon Strowger invented the first mechanical electrical phone switching system that would allow users of the phone system to dial the number of the destination and the connection would be made with no human intervention and no bias. The machine was truly neutral and would connect the parties following the commands of the person dialing the number. The Stronger Step By Step Exchange was eventually sold all over the world and became the dominant phone system around the world for close to 70 years. The system was eventually replaced by a digital exchange invented at Bell Laboratories and at Bell Northern Research. These systems maintained the neutrality inherent in the initial system devised by Almon Strowger. If you called Fedex, you were sure that you would be connected with Fedex and not UPS or DHL. So that’s the concept of neutrality, and the phone network solved that about 130 years ago
Now let’s talk about freedom of speech and we’ll come back to talking about Strowger later on.
So exactly what does Freedom of Speech mean?
Most Western democracies have some form of Freedom of Speech enshrined in the constitution. That’s true in the US, Canada, the UK, most of Europe and so on. So what exactly does that mean?
It means that you can’t be persecuted for what you think or what you say. There are limits on those freedoms. You’re not free to harm others through your speech. For example, you can’t frivolously yell “Fire” in the middle of a crowded movie theatre. You can’t make defamatory statements which aim to damage the reputation of another person or company.
You literally have the right to stand on a soap box in a public place and make a speech. In the good old days, that might have been on the Boston Commons, or perhaps in Central Park in NYC, or on the Mall in Washington DC. Today, that means on the Internet, perhaps on social media, or who knows, a podcast.
The makers of social media platforms are the modern day manufacturers of the soap box. The manufacturer of the soap box clearly can’t be held responsible for what someone standing on the soap box says. They merely cut some wood and screwed it together to form a box.
Arguably, social media is private property, not public. The use agreement between users of the platform and the owners of the platform is between a company and the user.
This is clearly a legal gray zone. Something said on social media is not truly public, but in many ways it is public.
There are so many messages being put out on social media. How is a piece of software supposed to figure out what’s a legitimate use of the platform and what is in violation of the use standards.
The amount of fake news is astounding. This week, the CEO’s of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google appeared before congress to answer questions about the amount of power and influence they wield to shape public opinion.
They are the modern day Mabel. By curating what’s displayed on the platform, they’re filtering out what you get to see. When that happens, then free speech gets suppressed, neutrality is gone and Mabel is back in control of how calls get routed to the undertaker, and how propaganda gets presented to the voting population.