Two Ongoing Questions: What's Fit for the Web? And, What Doesn't 'Fit'?

October 7, 2016

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

     So, consider the internet to be one, big ole' bucket of free expression — news and information pouring in constantly.

      And then consider what would you want poured into that bucket? What would you keep out?

     Those two simple questions likely will occupy much time and talk over the next years, if not the next decades, as we are forced to consider the nature of the stuff — speech, news and information — that goes into and comes out of the World Wide Web.

     If you live in the United States and live under the First Amendment as it currently stands, the immediate answer to "in-out" questions, with very few exceptions, is "Whatever I want."

     Nothing in the 45 words that define our core freedoms provides for limits or gives specific guidance to anybody. And so for at least the last 100 years, the tilt has been toward more speech, more protections for a free press and more informational "stuff" for everybody.

     Google, Facebook and their e-contemporaries, as private not government operations, are free to post, block or remove content as they will — on our behalf. Most cite "community standards" as reasons for impeding the free flow of information through their products and services.

     But "going global" via the web raises new issues and new standards, often in contradictory ways.

     Several reports over the past few days highlight the old and new complexity behind "simple" editorial decisions and algorithmic applications of group standards in planetary systems.

     Journalism think tank Poynter reported a few days go on a large surge in requests to U.S. news outlets to remove past items, for reasons ranging from not-guilty verdicts to plain embarrassment — a manifestation of something engagingly called "the right to be forgotten."

     And a European human rights group called on the United Kingdom to prevent news outlets in the UK from reporting whether or not terrorists are Muslim, as a means of fighting Islamophobia and countering violence against law-abiding Muslims.

     Consider the implications eliminating negative information and images from our varied web personifications. Sure, news reports of that humiliating court appearance continue to sting, even if the case was dismissed. Or paying a fine disposed of the legal aspects of that relatively minor traffic violation. Even in more serious matters, once one has paid their "debt to society," as it was once politely referred to, what's the value in continuing to be connected to a past act?

     For one thing, such reports are an independent record of what actually happened, not subject to future spiteful revision or gossipy inaccuracies. When contained in a public record, such accounts also serve to hold public officials accountable, particularly when aggregated to show trends, spending patterns and perhaps questionable discrepancies and unfairness.

     Scrubbing news reports of religious references when terrorism is involved — in the name of preventing slurs and violence aimed at an entire faith community — has a noble ring to it. But taking a shortcut through a full reporting by a free press as a means of combating the seamy side of societal bigotry and overreaction seems an unlikely and largely ineffective path to a better world.

     Where does such an approach stop? Should those periodic bursts of armed conflict between India and Pakistan be vaguely reported as "things that kind of happen between two nations that don't seem to like each other," ignoring the faith-based, Hindu-Muslim nature of the long-extant dispute? Should violence flare again in Northern Ireland, are news operations to be required to treat it as a kind of "skin-and-shirts" intramural contest gone awry, not a battle between Protestant and Catholic extremists? When tribal identity and tensions in Africa result in war, should the media just say it happened "well, because some people didn't like other people"?

     "Forgetting" factual reports or preventing the free flow of information as uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may be will create information "holes" where unfounded rumor, false data and outright fiction will reign unrefuted.

     Credible information, freely reported and freely discussed, is the foundation for self-governance and democratic societies, which survive and thrive on "facts" on which to build discussion and decision. And a credible record of the past is required to measure the present and realistically prepare for the future.

     To revise history in the name of personal comfort, or to limit the flow of information to deal with unwanted outcomes, risks transforming the vaunted "marketplace of ideas" — that crucible in which we debate, disagree but hopefully discover the best ideas for the public good — into little more than a carnival sideshow.

     And such moves could well turn the World Wide Web, with its optimistic promise of making more information available to more people than at any time in human history, into a New Age version of that Shakespearian vision in Macbeth of "a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.

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