Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet
Once upon the early 21st century, the internet was a decentralized space. When you knocked on its door, a web of blogs and news sites awaited your entry. There was community and conversation, to be sure. But they were built through comment threads and cross-posting. And Facebook? Only a .edu email address earned you admission there, making it the exclusive domain of students enrolled in U.S. universities.
It was hard to police a decentralized, horizontal web. And it was a slog to build an audience. Enter the internet of the 2010s: a centralized, vertical web that facilitates control.
Who wields that control, how they wield it, and why are the subjects of David Kaye’s Speech Police a concise primer on the major issues facing online content moderation. Ultimately, Kaye argues, the centralized web requires public oversight of content moderation with support from rights-protecting government regulation. In the meantime, a little more transparency couldn’t hurt.
The value in Kaye’s modest-sized Speech Police is its panoramic framing of the issues. Online content moderation is distilled into its simplest parts: the risks and benefits when platforms police content, the varied approaches governments take to curb platform power, and the real dangers on the horizon.
On one hand, Speech Police is an excellent point of entry for the uninitiated. Kaye describes the challenges of content moderation with references to unforgettable real-world effects (recall Facebook’s weak enforcement of its policies against racist and discriminatory content in Myanmar, making the platform a useful instrument in that country’s campaign of ethnic cleansing). He paints the global struggle to govern the internet with a broad brush, providing a landscape of regulatory appetites rather than a close-up of regulatory details.
On the other hand, Speech Police is a refreshing example to experts in the field of how to communicate this complex problem effectively — a necessary skill as debates over the future of Section 230 heat up.
Speech Police is also, in internet parlance, delightfully “insidery.” A professor of law and former UN special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression, Kaye has enviable access to notoriously guarded platforms. To wit, he describes his experience as an “invited observer” to a Facebook content policy session, where some 50 employees — seated around a conference table or streamed in by video — discuss how its rules should be enforced against high-profile, politically oriented pages that repeatedly promote or host hate speech.
“With a vibe of a law school seminar,” Kaye remarks, “I try to keep up with the questions and discussion.” The team debates topics like notice mechanisms and appeal options, and a senior member notes the importance of preserving space for legitimate political debate.
Kaye notices he’s among “mostly young, dressed down, smart, focused” employees, who are “seemingly drawn from elite schools and government institutions in the West.” They ask the right questions and genuinely try to get it right, he observes, but isn’t it remarkable that billions of people are affected by their decisions, and those billions lack any input?
After all, the centralized web is a governable space. It needn’t be lawless.