Marni Soupcoff: Don’t blame technology for how people – and…

Not unusually, there have been several news stories this week involving people fretting over technology; we tend to forget that tech itself is neutral, the reflection and not the cause of the ills for which it is sometimes used. I am thinking particularly about Google’s alleged plans to create a search engine for China, adapted specifically to meet the government’s censorship requirements. I also have in mind a new Indonesian app that allows people in that nation to report heretical leanings or unorthodox interpretations of the country’s official religions, making religious blacklisting suddenly less bureaucratic and more efficient.

We tend to forget that tech itself is neutral, the reflection and not the cause of the ills for which it is sometimes used

Like all government repression, China’s and Indonesia’s quashing of dissent and difference is disturbing, but the countries’ basic instinct to restrain freedom of thought and expression would not be changed if the technology currently being used for this purpose were withheld from them. Google could listen to its own workers, some of whom are protesting the company’s plans for creating a sanitized search engine for China. The result would be people in China — who are currently stuck with using poor-quality search engines that make recovering information extremely difficult — remaining in the dark, rather than enjoying the improvement in access that even a censored version of Google would represent.

Chinese journalists work on their computers during a G20 finance ministers meeting in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on July 23, 2016.

Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Doing away with its new heresy smartphone application would make Indonesia’s persecution of religious minorities slightly less obvious, and less open to ridicule from the rest of the world. But the country’s hostility to unsanctioned faiths would be no less real; an Indonesian whose home is destroyed by a violent mob is unlikely to care whether it’s because the minority Islamic movement he follows has been reported as heretical on an app, or is simply deemed to be in violation of Indonesia’s heresy law by informal agreement.

So, what we’re looking at here is the opposite of the usual question of how much government should try to regulate tech … it’s how much those creating tech should try to regulate government. What is needed is not a utopian vision for the use of technology but a sense of humility in terms of purposefully directing societal outcomes — because programmers and software engineers are unlikely to be much better than government at this sort of central planning, with the most freedom-friendly results to be had through open dissemination mitigated almost solely by immediate market concerns rather than restrictions based on grand pronouncements on morality.

An employee monitors market data on computer screens at the Indonesia Stock Exchange in Jakarta in a file photo from July 10, 2014. A new Indonesian computer app allows people in that nation to report heresy.

Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

That is worth thinking about when it comes to the roles of social networking sites in monitoring and restricting content, as well. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has taken a lot of heat for what has been deemed his irresponsible and inauthentic attempt to distance himself and his company from the information and opinions users post on the Facebook platform.

After an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher in the summer, Zuckerberg was criticized for his defence of his decision to allow such controversial and/or inaccurate outlets as InfoWars to stay on Facebook on the basis that, in Zuckerberg’s words, “Everyone gets things wrong, and if we were taking down people’s accounts when they got a few things wrong, then that would be a hard world for giving people a voice and saying that you care about that.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s chair sits empty when he failed to show for an international hearing at Britain’s parliament on disinformation and “fake news,” on Nov. 27, 2018.

Gabriel Sainhas/House of Commons/AP

But I would identify as healthy this part of Zuckerberg’s instinct to view and treat Facebook as a neutral platform.

And while I’m as appalled as the next reasonable, feeling person by InfoWars’ Alex Jones’ absurd and hurtful conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax, I really don’t want Mark Zuckerberg to be the guy deciding for all of us whether it’s a theory that is too appalling for us to even hear about — libel and defamation law is better suited for addressing any direct harm the craziness causes.

I really don’t want Mark Zuckerberg to be the guy deciding for all of us whether a theory is too appalling for us to even hear about

All of this applies equally to Twitter bumping users off its platform for voicing opinions that are considered beyond the pale. It’s Twitter’s prerogative to do so, but by consciously reining in what’s said on the app and who can use it, the company is sacrificing the neutrality of the technology that made it so incredible to begin with. And unlike in China — where even a censored Google is freer than the more limited alternatives — in the West, Twitter faces competition from apps willing to refrain from imposing values on users’ expression, an approach that will likely win out in the market in the end.

Apps and websites don’t oppress people. Authoritarian governments and censors oppress people. Let’s stop fretting over the former, and keep our attention on the latter, which is the real problem.

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