Why isn’t the Internet breaking?

During the squabble over SOPA and PIPA, one of the underlying (and possibly just lying) PR bullets coming out of Silicon Valley was that the actions called for in the bills would “break the Internet.”  And when that wasn’t the claim, the most consistent complaint was that the bills would chill free speech.  But in the wake of violent protests to an online video that may be related to the deaths of American diplomats, it turns out there is suddenly room for discussion about both speech and algorithmic solutions to thorny problems in an otherwise “free and open Internet.”

According to this piece by Somini Sengupta in yesterday’s New York Times, there is not only room for discussion, but it seems we’ll be having this discussion for quite some time and hearing from many parties. If nothing else, this article makes plain that the concept of free speech is no more universal inside the conference rooms at Google and Facebook than it is among nations.  So, if speech is relative, and algorithms can theoretically be written to correspond to definitions of “hate speech,” what was all that flap about SOPA and PIPA? I know the mechanisms requested by those anti-piracy bills are different from those required to address the issues cited here, and I don’t know anything about writing code; but it seems to me that the math problem in the case of analyzing hate speech worldwide is a hell of a lot harder than cutting off funding sources to a finite number of torrent sites.

The irony, of course, is that the makers of The Innocence of Muslims are fully protected by the First Amendment, even though what they chose to do with that right is irresponsible and loathsome.  And even if someone did manage to come up with a universal definition for hate speech, and a programmer managed to write code to seek it out on the Web, it’s possible this film that started all the trouble might not even meet the narrow criteria that would need to be written.

By contrast, the transactions made possible through torrent sites are not protected by the First Amendment, are comparatively easy to define, and extremely easy to locate.  Yet, we were led to believe that neither law nor technology could possibly have stopped or even mitigated piracy.  I don’t know.  As I say, I don’t write code, but it sounds a little bit like the masters of the Internet are clearly capable of flying F-18s when they need to but suddenly incapable of driving golf carts when they don’t want to.

© 2012, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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