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The Price of Speech

June 1, 2015

Flash back to April 6 of this year. It was more or less a normal day in the US, but if you were in the reach of Turkey's internet networks, access to YouTube and Twitter was shut off by the government temporarily. But while that didn't last too long to have any serious damages, a different story persists in China, within the "Great Firewall of China" that blocks off access to thousands of websites from the west including Twitter, YouTube, and almost the entirety of Google -- and that's not going away anytime soon. In 2011, Egypt's Internet was shut down, first starting with Twitter, then Facebook, then even SMS messaging and eventually the entirety of the Internet. And even in South Korea, a culture hailed for its IT prowess and dominance in the web, censorship blocks off quite a few websites from the national Internet. In comparison to many parts of the world, Internet in the US is far more open and freely accessible*. And with the increasing reach of the Internet is, of course, the increasing impact of one of the tenets of the US's national identity, free speech. But while it's certainly improved, such a universal access of online voices and policies might be casting an illusion on the price of speech.

I think the illusion of free speech comes in as we confuse being physically and lawfully able to speak freely with having no consequences and no barriers to speaking freely. Yes, there are, legislatively, measures to make sure that nobody is persecuted for speaking out their opinions, But if the backlash to Internet censorship around the world has shown us anything, it's that the government and culture often hold to different standards. And when there are opposing wills, the culture often has its way over the court. In other words, while the words of the government disallows censorship and limits on free speech, this can be, and often is, offset by the culture that puts a price tag to speaking out.

While free speech is a legal construct, it's also a part of a cultural environment. And one isn't of much use without the other.

Look back just a couple of years ago, and Google was publicly testing its Google Glass devices -- wearable, spectacle-like displays that were, among many things, equipped with a camera capable of filming exactly what the wearer was seeing inconspicuously. There weren't any legal issues that prevented Glass owners from wearing it in public, as long as they weren't violating any other laws using the device. But the idea of an omnipresent, potentially recording head-mounted camera generated a lot of media attention and hatred, leading to the term "Glassholes" and the device being banned in multiple sites across the country.

Ultimately what's "allowed" in a community in a practical sense isn't defined so much by the limits of the law -- that's just the bottom line. Instead, it's defined by the way the people within the community choose to tolerate or react against something. In the US and undoubtedly many other democracies, while the law promises "free speech" (and does it share of work to protect it), the culture often does a poorer job of protecting its freedom of speech. And this mismatch means that in many important situations, there still is a price to speaking out -- not from the government, but from the culture.

In my mind, freedom of speech is a cornerstone of protecting civil rights and ensuring that the democratic government -- by principle, a government whose power comes from its people -- keeps its identity as a democracy. From the age-old civil rights movements to the months-old net neutrality debate, people's rights to political voice and rights to access to information were protected, in large part, because people spoke out against it and made themselves heard. The idea of "free speech" is important because of the egalitarian ethos that gives equal value to the voices of every person, under the belief that everyone has the power to be a cause for change and a positive call to action for the community.

The idea of "free speech" is important because of the egalitarian ethos that gives equal value to the voices of every person, under the belief that everyone has the power to be a cause for change and a positive call to action for the community.

From that perspective, the tenet of free speech doesn't exist to only to give everyone the ability to speak out; it exists to give everyone's voice a stage to be heard, and, if others agree, a reason to be acted upon. The government and the law protects the first part -- people's physical ability to speak out. But opinions are often drowned out by the culture and the power of the majority before it's heard and has a chance to be heard, and this chokehold comes faster, stronger, as the issues at hand are more important and hotly debated. The words in opposition to the majority are drowned out before they can have a life of their own, and that defeats the purpose of free speech. In the end, while there is a legal tolerance for free speech, there isn't a constructive environment for it. And this dismissal of the anti-majority voices doesn't in any way solve or eliminate the conflicts; it just delays and worsens them.

A community isn't defined so much by its government and law as it by its culture and its people. And while the American ethos encompasses freedom of speech on paper, to have acceptance of and attention to voices that dare to disagree with the conventional belief, even it if seems outrageous or too small to matter, would be a true testament to democracy's power of social innovation.


* That's not to say, though, that that's going to last forever safely. Threats to net neutrality, for example, can seriously damage the openness and potential of the Internet.