Content Moderation and Free Speech

Mike Masnick wrote a good piece on this topic on his Techdirt blog last week.

I particularly like this part:

First, let’s look at the world without any content moderation. A website that has no content moderation but allows anyone to post will fill up with spam. Even this tiny website gets thousands of spam comments a day. Most of them are (thankfully) caught by the layers upon layers of filtering tools we’ve set up.

Would anyone argue that it is “against the principles of free speech” to filter spam? I would hope not.

But once you’ve admitted that it’s okay to filter spam, you’ve already admitted that content moderation is okay — you’re just haggling over how much and where to draw the lines.

And, really, the spam example is instructive in many ways. People recognize that if a website is overrun with spam, it’s actually detrimental for speech overall, because how can anyone communicate when all of the communication is interrupted or hard to find due to spam?

I, like many in tech, would prefer a world where there is little to no moderation and where you get a lively expression of different views. I use Twitter explicitly to hear voices I don’t hear in my day-to-day routines.

But as Mike notes, you must moderate content online in order to create spaces where conversations can be had.

And inevitably, this leads me to the same conclusion that Mike comes to at the end of his post. What we need are way more venues for conversations and way more venues with different moderation policies.

In other words, the concept of free speech should support a diversity of communities — not all speech on every community (or any particular community). And content moderation is what makes that possible.

The early days of Twitter are instructive here. The Twitter website was unreliable and the API allowed anyone to build a third-party client. So many Twitter users used a different user interface to access Twitter and use Twitter. Had that architecture endured it could have created many “clients” with different moderation policies. Just like we have many email clients. It did not endure and so we have one company controlling the moderation policy of the entire Twitter conversation. That is not ideal.

Contrast this with Ethereum. We have a single protocol with many self custody wallets. Each self custody wallet has a slightly different user interface that allows users to access the Ethereum network in slightly different ways. But all of the teams working on the Ethereum ecosystem have a shared incentive to improve the network because they all own ETH. So a single protocol with a rich variety of third-party clients becomes sustainable.

If we want free speech then we want less concentration of market power and business models that allow for that. Advertising does not. Token-based business models do.