What’s fit for the web? And, what doesn’t ‘fit’ on the web?

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION -

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 econ­tem­po­raries, 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? “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. Gene Policin­ski is COO of the New­seum In­sti­tute and se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute’s First Amend­ment Cen­ter. Email: gpolicin­ski@new­seum.org

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